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The Magnificent Seven: Cheltenham champions

It’s almost time, race fans. Get in the mood with our favourites from down through the years.

Charlie Swan on Istabraq in The Smurfit Champion Hurdle in 1999.
Charlie Swan on Istabraq in The Smurfit Champion Hurdle in 1999.
Image: Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport

1. Arkle

Cheltenham Gold Cup, 1964-1966

FIFTY-SIX YEARS after he raced his last, Arkle is still considered by many to be the greatest chaser of all-time.

In March 1964, the seven-year-old travelled to Cheltenham to seek revenge against British darling Mill House in the second installment of a classic rivalry which Kauto Star and Denman would attempt to emulate many years later.

Then, Arkle was the challenger, seeking to depose Mill House who had sauntered to a to a 12-length victory over the field in 1963.

The British public were confident in their steed as they had every right to be. When the two greats had met in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury the previous year, the six-year-old Mill House had won comfortably despite carrying five pounds more than his opponent.

So, when the two came face-to-face in a four-horse field for the Gold Cup in 1964, Arkle was out to prove a point. The narrative of a valiant Irish hero seeking revenge against his British foe practically wrote itself.

Considering the pre-race hype, it is incredible that the event lived up to its billing, so much so that it is still regarded as one of the great Gold Cups.

As the pair stalked each other across three miles, the lead changed hands and back again countless times, the margins narrow. Rounding the final bend, there was little to choose between them until a sudden shift in gear saw Arkle speed away for a five-length victory.

A memorable win – but it was only the beginning of a magnificent period of dominance for Ireland’s finest ever chaser.

YouTube credit: jessejames3507

2. L’Escargot

Cheltenham Gold Cup, 1970 & 1971

L’Escargot may have established himself in racing folklore as the horse who ended Red Rum’s dream of a Grand National hat-trick in 1975, but long before he managed that feat, he had proven himself to be a chaser of the highest quality.

To describe L’Escargot’s triumph in the 1970 Cheltenham Gold Cup as unlikely is very generous. After all, there aren’t many 33/1 shots who storm the field to win the greatest prize in National Hunt racing.

His victory that year was the first glimpse of greatness in a horse that nobody had wanted once upon a time. His eventual owner was the American ambassador to Ireland, a man named Raymond Guest, who bought him for a nominal sum after the horse failed to sell at auction.

In hearing Guest talk about his purchase years later, there is a sense that he never expected L’Escargot to amount to as much as his other great horses, Larkspur and Sir Ivor.

Though he saw promise and took a relatively small gamble, he must have been as surprised as any when the seven-year-old crossed the Prestbury Park finish line ahead of a star-studded field.

The real challenge, however, was to repeat the trick the following year, something which nobody expected L’Escargot to do. He did, expertly traversing the boggy ground to seal a ten-length victory over another Irish challenger, Leap Frog.

In doing so, he became only the third horse in the post-war era to retain the Gold Cup. Not bad for a horse that nobody wanted.

YouTube credit: jessejames3507

3. Dawn Run

Cheltenham Gold Cup, 1986

“Yesterday it was very cold in the Cotswolds but in retrospect most of those who were on Cheltenham’s racecourse will remember the time between about half past three and four o’clock as a fragment of Summer.”

Not my words, sadly, but those of the great Con Houlihan, a man who had the pleasure of being at Prestbury Park on the day when Dawn Run defied all logic and reason to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The Cheltenham Hill – that ruthless final furlong as the horses near the winning post – has been the downfall of many great competitors and sure things over the years. With few exceptions, the horse which wins a tight race at Cheltenham is the horse who still has that little bit extra in the tank as he struggles up the brutal incline alongside his competitors.

Despite a huge, inelegant jump by Dawn Run to take the lead two fences from home, it appeared for all the world that she would never catch either Wayward Lad or defending champion Forgive ‘n Forget as the race entered its closing stages. Her bolt shot, the leading pair would be left to duke it out over the spoils.

Perhaps Wayward Lad’s turn of the pace having cleared the last was deceptive. Perhaps Dawn Run was never actually running to stand still as it seemed for a few brief, heartbreaking seconds.

Whatever actually happened, as Jonjo O’Neill guided her to the centre of the track, Forgive ‘n Forget started to feel the pressure ever so slightly. In the context of this finale, it was more than enough to rule him out of contention.

As the champion faltered, Dawn Run’s stride inexplicably lengthened and, up in front of her, Wayward Lad’s commanding lead somehow dwindled. In the blink of an eye, the race had changed completely.

Seconds later, Jonjo O’Neill was punching the air in joy, celebrating a remarkable comeback by the mare who, to this day, remains the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

YouTube credit: jessejames3507

4. Istabraq

Champion Hurdle, 1998-2000

In the pantheon of hurdling legends, Istabraq is rightly considered to be one of the all-time greats. The winner of a remarkable three successive Champion Hurdles, cruelly denied his chance at a record-breaking four by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease which forced the festival’s cancellation in 2001.

The story of the great Istabraq’s first Champion Hurdle triumph is, sadly, a bittersweet one. Six weeks before the horse decimated all opposition over the two mile course, trainer John Durkan had passed away after a battle with leukemia at the age of just 31.

From the moment he laid eyes on the horse, Durkan was adamant that he could be great. Even when illness forced him to pass training duties over to a young Aidan O’Brien, he insisted that he be allowed take charge of the horse once he had returned to the whole of his health.

Sadly, that opportunity never arose. However, there could have been few finer tributes to the young trainer’s memory than the performance which Istabraq put in on St Patrick’s Day 1998.

That the horse won surprised few people. The previous season, he had trounced all comers as he claimed every novice hurdling title worth winning. His near-perfect preparation for the Champion Hurdle made him very difficult to oppose.

The emphatic nature of Istabraq’s eventual victory merely served to underscore his greatness. Before he had even entered the final straight, the race was as good as won, Charlie Swan merely reassuring himself with a look over his shoulder.

When asked to articulate his feelings having crossed the finish line, Swan simply said what everyone had been thinking.

“This one’s for John.”

YouTube credit: flimper1

5. Hardy Eustace

Champion Hurdle, 2004 & 2005

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”

Rudyard Kipling died in 1936, so it is unlikely that he had two-time Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace in mind when penning these words. They capture almost perfectly, however, the essence of what it was that made the Dessie Hughes-trained hurdler a champion.

It would be grossly unfair to describe Hardy Eustace as an average or an ordinary horse. Equally, it would be a gross overstatement to talk of him in the same breath as Istabraq.

No horse wins back-to-back Champion Hurdles by accident though. In the case of Hardy Eustace, sheer grit and determination proved to be the perfect complement to the glimmer of excellence which he had shown in winning the RSA Novices’ Hurdle in 2003, so much so that it offset the inconsistency which had particularly blighted his preparations in the run-up to his first title.

If the 11/8 favourite Rooster Booster had forced Hardy Eustace to dig deep for the win in 2004, the dual challenge of Harchibald and Brave Inca in 2005 allowed him to show the world exactly what he was made of.

As all three rose in tandem over the final fence and Hardy Eustace pushed on in defence of his crown, he looked to be a sitting duck. The Noel Meade-trained Harchibald was sitting pretty, stalking the champion, poised to strike.

When the time came for both Conor O’Dwyer and Paul Carberry to ask questions of their respective mounts, however, there was only one who had the answer. Cruising in automatic, Harchibald appeared to think that the race would win itself. The champ was under no such illusions.

He may not have been the most talented horse in the field but, by running long and harder than his celebrated opponents, Hardy Eustace made for himself a little piece of Cheltenham history.

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6. Kicking King

Cheltenham Gold Cup, 2005

Winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2005, Kicking King was the champion who very nearly never made it.

Two weeks before the festival, trainer Tom Taffe decided to withdraw the horse, fearful that he was ill. Owner Conor Clarkson was driving when Taffe contacted him with the news. Devastated, he pulled the car over to the side of the road and sat motionless for two hours.

Though it was no consolation at the time, Kicking King wasn’t the only fancied horse to be having trouble that year. Three-time champion Best Mate was set to challenge for a remarkable fourth title when he burst a blood vessel on the gallops a week before.

Then, despite the champion’s omission, another strong contender, Kingscliff, decided to take his chance in the World Hurdle instead.

Whether the absence of two of the race’s strongest contenders encouraged Taffe to re-examine Kicking King’s health will never be known. “It’s the horse who told me to come here,” he mused coyly in the parade ring after his victory. All throughout, the seven-year-old was given a splendid ride by Barry Geraghty who had him perfectly positioned to strike two from home. Once the question had been asked, there was never any doubt as Cheltenham’s new King eased to a five length victory.

Ireland had waited since 1996 for a Gold Cup winner. When it finally came, it was courtesy of a horse who very nearly wasn’t there.

YouTube credit: horseracingireland

7. Moscow Flyer

Queen Mother Champion Chase, 2003 & 2005

The storyline of an experienced champion defending his honour against a successor-in-waiting is always a gripping one. Unsurprisingly, that is how the 2005 face-off between Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop in the Queen Mother Champion Chase was framed.

Having won the race convincingly in 2003, an erratic display of jumping cost Jessica Harrington’s horse any chance of retaining his title in the renewal 12 months later. When he blundered four fences from home and threw jockey Barry Geraghty to the floor, the new kid on the block had been waiting to capitalise. Seven-year-old Azertyuiop went on to win convincingly, quickly becoming the talk of the town.

As punters awaited a rematch the following year, it became quite apparent that the 2005 Cheltenham Festival would be Moscow Flyer’s final chance to correct the record.

At 11-years-old, the Irish horse was becoming prohibitively old, losing the turn of pace deemed so essential to victory in a two-mile chase. Geraghty and Harrington were confident, however, that a blemish-free round of jumping would give their star every possible chance, regardless of age.

In the end, it was probably his fluidity over the fences which proved to be the difference.

After a bad mistake by Azertyuiop ruled the defending champion out of contention, Moscow Flyer was left alone at the head of the field with another young pretender, Well Chief, in close attention.

With no margin for error, Moscow Flyer delivered three inch-perfect jumps over the final three fences, doing just enough to shake the resolute Well Chief from his tail as the Irish punters among the Cheltenham crowd rose to celebrate the return of their king.

YouTube credit: Amonsol

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Niall Kelly

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