The Festival is now just a few short weeks away and we hope you are getting as excited as we are! It seems a good time to remind ourselves of just some of the horses that have thrilled us, in recent years! There are so many that we could include here, but we think you will all agree that those which have made the cut have all been very special.
After completing 13 races in France (which included victory in the Prix Amadou), Big Buck’s was sent to Paul Nicholls’ yard where he didn’t initially set the world alight but was able to secure victory in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase after a reasonable performance in his Festival debut where he finished 7th in the Jewson Novices’ Handicap Chase.
The following season he was returned to hurdles, following a dreadful blunder in the Hennessy Gold Cup and the move proved to be an inspired decision by his trainer. Big Buck’s won the Cleeve Hurdle and the World Hurdle was the obvious next step.
Not only did Big Buck’s win this race, he also won the next 3 renewals in a period where he utterly dominated the sataying hurdlers that were his unfortunate contemporaries. His incredible record, from 2009-2012 comprises wins in the World Hurdle (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), Liverpool Hurdle (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), Long Distance Hurdle (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and the Long Walk Hurdle (2009, 2010, 2011).
Big Buck’s was finally retired in 2014, after a farewell Cheltenham appearance in the World Hurdle, but they will still be talking about this dogged performer many years from now.
“He’s been a legend” Nicholls said, after calling time on his great campaigner. “We agreed we could not improve on how we had him today. I am not emotional, just delighted he has come home in one piece and will enjoy a wonderful life.”
French-bred and trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins, Quevega was sired by Robin Des Champs. She made her debut in Ireland at Punchestown (2008), winning a maiden under Davy Condon.
She was sent to the Cheltenham Festival in 2008 and was entered in the newly established David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Quevega ran magnificently, in the fixture that would come to define her career, beating the field by 14 lengths.
She won the next 5 renewals of the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, while also scooping 4 World Series Hurdle titles at Punchestown. No other horse has won 6 consecutive Cheltenham Festival races and the roars just got louder, each time she secured another victory.
“You’ll never replace the likes of her, we try to buy good mares all the time but she’ll leave a fair gap in our yard. I’ll be sorry to see her go, but she finishes in one piece and is sound.” said Mullins when announcing her retirement in 2014.
Not too many horses make the leap from the back-pages of newspapers, to the front, but Best Mate did when this much-loved Irish-bred Cheltenham stalwart sadly passed away in 2005.
Owned by Jim Lewis and trained by Henrietta Knight, Best Mate has both a statue built in his honour and an entire enclosure named after him, at the Gloucestershire racing venue.
Best Mate never fell in his career, either at a fence or hurdle and finished a close runner-up to Sausalito Bay on his Festival debut, in the 2000 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He didn’t return to the Festival for 2 years, but when he did it was in triumph. He won the 2002 Gold Cup in style, with race-favourite Looks In Trouble living up to his name and a mile behind in last place.
He was successful in the next 2 renewals of the Gold Cup, establishing himself as the best chaser in the world. Best Mate also won the King George VI Chase, in 2002.
The great warrior sadly collapsed suffering a heart-attack in front of packed stands at Exeter, with many of the observers having turned-up specifically to see their great hero in action.
“The only thing we can say is that at least he did not fall and break a leg and he was never beaten in a Gold Cup” a distraught Henrietta Knight said, after the tragedy.
Best Mate will never be forgotten.
Born in 1992, yet still going strong in retirement at the home of owner JP McManus, this remarkable Sadler’s Wells gelding was only ever ridden by one jockey over obstacles. Charlie Swan was his lucky passenger and the horse was so highly-regarded by punters that they even penned a song about him!
“We’ve had Monksfield, Night Nurse and Dawn Run Danoli and Derrymoyle. But they’d find it hard to beat this one Istabraq from Ballydoyle…”
He won the Future Champions Novice Hurdle in 1996 and announced himself at the Festival by coming out on top in a terrific battle with Mighty Moss in the 1997 Royal Sunalliance Novices’ Hurdle.
He was back the following year, with connections eyeing an even bigger prize. Istabraq duly put the entire field to the sword in the 1998 Champion Hurdle and he would be triumphant in the next two renewals, also. His big career wins are far too numerous to mention, but include a quartet of Irish Champion Hurdle victories and the same number of December Festival wins.
Aidan O’Brien, the trainer whose career was to a great extent founded on this awesome beast, had this to say when Istabraq was finally put out to pasture in 2002: “Istabraq has given us wonderful memories to cherish and all who were associated with him feel especially privileged.”
Charlie Swan, unsurprisingly, offered even greater praise.
“It’s farewell to a fantastic horse. I’m unlikely to come across one like him again.”
Paul Nicholls’ outstanding inmate eventually lost his battle to survive, following a fall in his paddock in 2015. He had already retired, at this point and had established himself as one of the best Cheltenham horses of recent years.
Kauto Star was initially trained in France, by Serge Foucher. Nicholls’ first got a glimpse of him (on video) running at Auteuil and his interest was immediately piqued. Purchase was arranged through Anthony Bromley and he arrived in England in time for the 2005-2006 campaign.
After winning the Tingle Creek, Nicholls sent Kauto Star to the Festival for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He was sent-off as favourite, but fell at the 3rd fence to a chorus of groans from the many spectators that had backed him.
Another Tingle Creek victory, in 2007, was sound preparation for a return and this time Kauto Star did not fluff his lines. He won the Gold Cup, despite drawing more than a few gasps when hitting the final fence.
He was unable to retain his crown in 2008, falling victim to a sensational front-running performance by Denman, but he exacted revenge a year later – crushing Denman by 13 lengths.
Kauto Star is even more fondly remembered as a King George VI champion, having won that contest on 5 occasions between 2006 and 2011. Nonetheless, he remains a Cheltenham hero and Nicholls turned to Twitter when expressing his sadness at Kauto Star’s departure.
“RIP my friend you were a true Legend. Once in a lifetime.”
While his efforts were judged some way short of those by both Arkle (rated 212) and Flying Bolt (210), the fact that Sprinter Sacre (192p) is regarded by Timeform as being the 3rd-best chaser of all time means that he is arguably the most able horse to race at the Festival in the modern era.
Nicky Henderson switched him to fences in 2011-2012 and it immediately became clear that this would be his forte. Sprinter crushed Al Ferof, Menorah and Cue Card, in the 2012 Arkle – winning by 7 lengths with Barry Geraghty clearly easing him down as the post was passed.
Even better was to follow. No horse other than Arkle had been sent-off at shorter odds at the Festival when Sprinter Sacre (at 1/4) bid for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, in 2013. The bookies were proved right and Geraghty sat motionless, as his mount cruised to a 19-length victory.
A glittering future lay ahead, but Sprinter Sacre suffered a series of injuries in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 campaigns. Henderson refused to give up on him though and successes in the Shloer Chase, Desert Orchid Chase and the Celebration Chase led to another tilt at the Champion Chase in 2016.
Most of the money that came for him in that race was probably based on sentiment, rather than logic, but those who bet with their hearts were rewarded. Sprinter Sacre powered past Un De Sceaux, rolling back the years to record a truly memorable victory that brought the house down at Cheltenham.
“His ability and charisma go together. He is the epitome of the horse who looks the part, moves the part and is the part. Life will have to go on without him. It has been such an emotional time over the last five or six years but I have loved every minute of it.”, an emotional Henderson said in a press conference that followed his retirement in 2016 (a day made even harder for the trainer, due to the untimely death of stablemate Simonsig).
All National Hunt fans felt the hairs on the back of their necks stand-up, when Sprinter Sacre rounded the bend in 2016. It was one of the Festivals greatest ever moments.
Despite a glittering early career that saw her take the Johnstown Novice Hurdle, Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final and the Ascot Hurdle, Annie Power took a long time to get it right at Cheltenham and she tested the resolve of her many fans.
Even though Big Buck’s was attempting to win a 5th straight Stayers Hurdle, in 2014, his powers were clearly on the wane and Annie Power began the race as an 11/8 favourite. Big Buck’s did finally fall short, but Annie Power was unable to repel the challenge from More Than That and trainer Willie Mullins admitted afterwards that the better horse had won.
In 2015, she competed in the Mares’ Hurdle and looked all set for an easy victory, before falling at the last with the race completely at her mercy. That fall really hit punters in the pocket, but she was still made favourite for the 2016 Champion Hurdle. Annie Power made all and became just the 4th mare to ever win the race – her predecessors being African Sister (1939), Dawn Run (1984) and Flakey Dove (1994).
“She was a very special racemare and gave us many memorable days. Her Champion Hurdle win last year was definitely one of the highlights of my career as a trainer. To see her landing running over the last in the Champion Hurdle, after what had happened in the Mares’ Hurdle the year before, was fantastic and seeing her gallop up the hill for victory was very, very special.” said Mullins, following Annie Power’s retirement in 2017.
She is now a broodmare and has already been covered by Camelot.
Nicky Henderson’s charge first caught the eye when beating Sire De Grugy by 9 lengths, in a two-mile novices hurdle race at Kempton Park. Owned by the Not Afraid Partnership, Bobs Worth became a firm Festival favourite and formed a terrific partnership with Barry Geraghty.
The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (2011) was his first success, with Bobs Worth justifying favourite status and proving too good for Mossley Court.
Henderson put him in the RSA Chase, the following year. Grands Crus led the betting, but Bobs Worth took the lead 8 fences from home and looked capable of sewing-up the contest early. However First Lieutenant was tenacious and headed Bobs Worth, as they approached the 12th. Geraghty asked for more and got it. Bobs Worth reasserted in the closing stages, to win in style.
In the 2012-2013 campaign, Bobs Worth won the Hennessy Gold Cup from Tidal Bay and was immediately made favourite for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. The race began disastrously though, with Bobs Worth being terribly hampered at the 3rd fence and already looking a beaten animal. As they approached the final turn, Long Run had an 8-length lead, but Geraghty would not cave-in and the partnership began to close the gap. By the final fence, they were in front and the crowd roared as the post was reached. Bobs Worth had become the first horse, since the great Flying Bolt, to win 3 different races at consecutive Cheltenham Festivals.
“He wasn’t a horse who took much racing, because he put so much into it. He’s an absolute legend”, Henderson opined upon Bobs Worth’s retirement in 2016.
The world record-holder, for most Grade 1/Group 1 victories won by any racehorse (22), only won two of his 10 races in France before joining Willie Mullins. He was immediately successful in Ireland, winning the Future Champions Novice Hurdle, Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he made his Festival debut.
Mullins put Ruby Walsh on him, for the Champion Hurdle and The Fly took the lead at the final flight – holding-off the challenge of Peddlers Cross and winning by just over a length. He was massively backed to repeat the feat in 2012, but Ruby’s hold-up ride didn’t work out and 3rd-place was a huge disappointment for a horse that was sent-off at odds of 4/6.
He had now gathered an army of doubters and no horse had regained the Champion Hurdle since Comedy Of Errors in 1975. The 2013 renewal included the likes of Binocular and Rock On Ruby. The Fly looked unsteady in the early stages, but rallied to take the lead two out. Rock On Ruby was comfortably beaten and the hordes of Irish devotees that had made the trip went wild.
He retired in 2015, having also won an incredible 5 Irish Champion Hurdles and Mullins was quick to pay tribute.
“What can you say about him? He’s a legend of a horse. This day was always going to come and it’s great that we’re doing it on our terms, rather than due to an injury or something like that. He’s a horse who has everything. Speed and stamina and an incredible bravery and aggressiveness.”
My Tent Or Yours
So often the bridesmaid, but never quite the Cheltenham bride, Nicky Henderson’s 11-year-old just keeps banging on the door and will be guaranteed a huge ovation if he can finally break his duck in 2018.
He finished half a length behind Champagne Fever, in the 2013 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and sadly this created the blueprint. Hurricane Fly beat him by a neck, in the 2014 Champion Hurdle, before surgery led to My Tent Or Yours missing the entire 2014-2015 campaign.
Annie Power proved to be his only nemesis, in the 2016 Champion Hurdle and he returned for more punishment in 2017 – losing the same race to stablemate Buveur D’Air.
This horse is still a winner, having won the Betfair Hurdle, Top Novices’ Hurdle, Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Christmas Hurdle and the International Hurdle. The cards just won’t fall for him at Cheltenham.
My Tent Or Yours is expected to compete in the Champion Hurdle, once again, but most simply expect Buveur D’Air to confirm his dominance. Could the old campaigner finally catch a break, though?
Cause Of Causes
Let’s end with another Cheltenham favourite that we can look forward to seeing in action at the 2018 Festival and one with a string of victories already under his belt.
Cause Of Causes is trained by Gordon Elliott and owned by JP McManus. He debuted in 2013, making an unlikely bid for Supreme Novices’ Hurdle glory. 7th place reflected the long odds he was sent-off at and in the following year he would contest the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase. Under a ride from Nina Carberry, Cause Of Causes hit the bar – finishing runner-up to Spring Heeled after blundering at the last.
In 2015, the National Hunt Chase was his destination and a much better round of jumping led to victory at the expense of Broadway Buffalo. Katie Walsh was on-board, this time around.
Elliott clearly felt that there was unfinished business, with regards to the Kim Muir and Cause Of Causes thrashed the opposition in 2016. He gave 3lb to both Upswing and The Giant Bolster in that race, yet won by a massive 12 lengths.
In 2017 a 3rd straight Festival victory was secured. Bless The Wings was well-beaten in the Glenfarclas Chase, with race-favourite Cantlow further back in the field.
Many are backing Cause Of Causes to win this year’s Aintree Grand National but, before the 4 miles in Liverpool are tackled, he’ll almost-certainly feature at Cheltenham again and the Cross-Country Chase is where most expect him to plant his hooves.
He’ll join the Cheltenham greats, if he can make it 4 victories, on the spin!