The Best Cheltenham Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Winners Of All Time

The G1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is always the first race on the opening day of Cheltenham and it’s one of the Festival’s most important contests. This encounter has been running since 1946, although it was initially called the Gloucestershire Hurdle and was split into divisions until 1972. Here is our top-5 list of the greatest champions of all time…

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#1 Flyingbolt (Div 1)

The birth of the 1964 winner certainly came as a bolt from the blue, for Robert Way who had taken in the horse that would become his sire. 1946 Derby Champion, Airborne, was believed to be impotent and had been allowed to graze with a female companion because of this!

What is even more remarkable is that the mare (Eastlock) was thought to be barren, yet the pair somehow managed to produce a chestnut colt who was eventually sold for 210 guineas. The horse was later delivered into the hands of Jean Wilkinson, who named him.

The price turned out to be apt, as Flyingbolt received a Timeform rating of 210! He also won the Irish Grand National, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Thyestes Chase, the Arkle Challenge Trophy, the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup, the Black & White Whisky Gold Cup and the Irish Champion Hurdle.

Jockey Barry Brogan once said of him “In my view Flyingbolt was probably the best horse I ever rode – even better than Arkle. I honestly believe that he would have beaten Arkle in the 1966 Gold Cup if Tom Dreaper had allowed him to run”.

#2 Bula (Div 2)

The 1970s was a vintage era for 2-mile hurdlers and featured great animals such as Persian War, Comedy Of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon.

Bula (trained by Fred Winter) was another and this incredible Raincheck-sired gelding won no less than 34 races. These included the Osborne Hurdle, the Benson & Hedges Handicap Hurdle, the Mill House Hurdle, the Kingwell Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle, the Welsh Champion Hurdle, the Skeaping Trophy Hurdle, the Cheltenham Trial Hurdle, the Black and White Whiskey Gold Cup, the Benson & Hedges Novices’ Chase, the Fairlawne Chase, the Sundew Chase and the Gainsborough Chase. Several of these contest were won by Bula on more than one occasion.

He beat Odeum by 6-lengths, in the Supreme and became one of the dominant National Hunt horses of the decade. The horse suffered a bad fall, at the 5th fence, in the 1977 Cheltenham Champion Chase and tore shoulder muscles. There were initially hopes that he would make a full recovery, but these were soon dashed and Bula was put to sleep in May of that year. The Cheltenham Trial Hurdle was renamed in his honour and was known as the Bula Hurdle up until 2010.

#3 L’Escargot (Div 2)

Owned by Raymond Guest and trained by Dan Moore, L’Escargot won the Supreme in 1968, although this horse is largely remembered for performances in other races.

He brought Red Rum’s winning run to an end, in the 1975 Grand National – beating the race’s favourite son by 15 lengths. This victory came towards the end of his career and very-nearly didn’t happen at all as the horse barely survived a bad jump at the fence following Becher’s Brook first time around.

After the historic victory, jockey Tommy Carberry said “I thought he was in better shape today than ever before. Last year when second he was up against a very good horse on the day. This time just before the second Becher’s Red Rum seemed to be going more easily than mine. And from Valentines I was going the better and coming back onto the racecourse with two to jump Brian Fletcher shouted to me ‘well done – you’ve won’”.

He was also victorious in back-to-back Gold Cups and got himself inducted into the  U.S. National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (L’Escargot was named American Champion Steeplechase Horse, in 1969).

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#4 Brave Inca

Out of Wigwam Mam and sired by Good Thyne, this Irish gelding was trained by Colm Murphy and owned by the Novices Syndicate.

He was foaled in 1998 and was bought, as a yearling, for just IR£6000. Brave Inca failed to impress, initially, suffering comprehensive defeats at various Irish racecourses and it wasn’t until he was entered into National Hunt flat contests that he began to shine.

He began the 2003/2004 campaign as a novice hurdler and suddenly looked unbeatable. War Of Attrition ran him very close in the 2004 Supreme, but that was a very good horse who would go on to be a Gold Cup winner.

Brave Inca was extremely successful, between 2004 and 2006. Other big races won included the Champion Hurdle, the December Festival Hurdle, the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle and the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.

Injuries began taking their toll after 2006, although Brave Inca did manage one great last hurrah in 2011 when he amazed the racing world by winning the Irish Champion Hurdle as an 11-year-old.

Colm Murphy described him as “Unbelievable, one in a million. He’s as tough as nails”.

#5 Golden Cygnet

Described by Vincent O’Brien as “the best hurdler I’ve ever seen”, he was bought by Edward O’Grady as an unbroken 3-year-old in 1975 for just 980 guineas. His first race was at Leopardstown, but while he was first past the winning-post the Deep Run-sired runner was disqualified for causing interference. A defeat at Roscommon followed, before he finished off the year (1976) with an 8-length victory in an amateur riders encounter at Naas.

Golden Cygnet didn’t race for a year and then put in poor performances at Listowel, Punchestown and Leopardstown. The season ended and this far-from-promising horse was switched to hurdles.

He benefited from being reunited with a young jockey called Niall Madden. Victories at Clonmel and Leopardstown were followed with a win in the Slaney Hurdle and he quickly began to establish himself as a hot prospect. He won the 1978 Supreme Novices Hurdle by 15 lengths. It still ranks as one of the most impressive Supreme performances ever witnessed.

A glorious career beckoned, but after he had destroyed the opposition in the Fingal Hurdle tragedy struck. The final race in Golden Cygnet’s short but mesmerising career was the Scottish Champion Hurdle. He was up against Night Nurse and the great Sea Pigeon. It looked like he was going to beat them comfortably before he struck the final flight and broke his neck.

Timeform’s assessment was as follows:

“The race confirmed two important points – that Sea Pigeon had no superior among the established hurdlers apart from Monksfield, and that all the superlatives heaped on Golden Cygnet had been justified…. Golden Cygnet appeared to have plenty left, and was two lengths up on Sea Pigeon and about to take the lead from Night Nurse when he suffered his fatal fall. Judging by the way Golden Cygnet finished in his previous races, he would have taken some catching…..The connections of Sea Pigeon did not dispute the general feeling afterwards that Golden Cygnet would have beaten Sea Pigeon in the Scottish Champion Hurdle if he had not come to grief at the last. And for a novice to have defeated a seasoned campaigner of Sea Pigeon’s calibre at a difference of only 1lb would have been a staggering achievement.”

We’ll never know just how good this remarkable horse really was, but Golden Cygnet was clearly too talented not to make our top-5.

Honourable Mentions

Younger racing fans might feel a little unhappy that Douvan has not made our list! Willie Mullins’ French Superstar remains unbeaten, but with so few genuinely top-class horses being put in races to challenge him the 7-year-old is a victim of his own success. A Cheltenham showdown with Altior is something that most of us would love to see, but that is very-much in Nicky Henderson’s gift! Vautour, Champagne Fever, Al Ferof, Go Native, Arcalis, Back In Front, Like-A-Butterfly and Hors La Loi III are also worthy of recognition.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our top-5 list of Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winners. Let’s hope that the 2017 renewal produces a winner capable of one day joining this roster of true greats!

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