The Cheltenham Festival is the main event on the horse racing calendar. Four days of top-class racing at Prestbury Park, hundreds of thousands of racegoers (usually) coming through the turnstiles, and the finest horses in the world going head-to-head in some of the sport’s biggest races.
The first of the four major races at Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 race contested over a distance of just over two miles. Since the first running of the race in 1927, won by Blaris, there have been some incredible runners and we’re going to look at 10 of the best ahead of this year’s edition.
The first of five triple-winners on the list, Hatton’s Grace dominated the Champion Hurdle with consecutive wins in 1949, 1950 and 1951. The historic horse helped kickstart the career of trainer Vincent O’Brien – the man who went on to train Nijinsky and is widely renowned as one of the greatest influences in British horse racing history.
With his third triumph, Hatton’s Grace became the first of only two horses to win the race as an 11-year-old. Aubrey Brabazon was on board for the first two wins, while Tim Molony was the jockey to complete the hat-trick. More on him… now.
After Molony’s success on Hatton’s Grace, he got the nod to ride Sir Ken, a French-bred horse who had eight wins from eight coming into the 1952 Cheltenham Festival. The 3/1 favourite ran out a two-length winner, with the 12-year-old Hatton’s Grace and two-time winner National Spirit among the 15 opposing horses that simply couldn’t compete.
The bookies made no mistake in the following years – Sir Ken went off at 2/5 and 4/9 as he completed the hat-trick, with Molony on board for all, setting an unrivalled record of four in a row.
It was a while since we saw domination like the above once again. After having just three champions in eight years from 1947 onwards, there were 13 different winners up until 1968. That’s when Persian War came to town – and become the third treble-winner.
Regarded by many as the greatest hurdler of all time, the 5-year-old ridden by Jimmy Uttley swept aside a strong field to claim the prize for trainer Colin Davies. Recovering from a fractured femur, the winning team repeated the feat a year later and then made it three in 1970 despite a season of poor form. Some horses just love Cheltenham, and Persian War was certainly one of those.
A special mention for Bula, a dual winner who got up to deny Persian War a fourth in 1971 – but we can’t include them all. And that’s why next on the list is Night Nurse, a horse who was awarded the highest Timeform rating ever given to a hurdler.
Peter Easterby’s horse would form a great rivalry with Monksfield and Sea Pigeon during what was a golden era for racing. Ridden to success by Paddy Broderick in ’76 and ’77, Night Nurse could only come third in ’78 and would see his rivals share the next four editions between them. But with 35 career wins behind him – including an undefeated season where he also won the Scottish and Welsh Champion Hurdles, the horse would go down in history as one of the very best.
See You Then
The Ronnie O’Sullivan of horses, See You Then just had a knack for winning whenever he felt like turning up. With just four career runs, Nicky Henderson’s 5-year-old was a 16/1 winner in a wild 1985 Champion Hurdle. Second and third were 66/1 and 100/1. What a tricast that would have been…
One year later and with just one seasonal run under his belt, See You Then did it again. And Steve Smith Eccles was back on board to complete the hat-trick in 1987. Once more, this legendary horse had just one prep run for the Cheltenham Festival. But that’s all he needed. Iconic.
The fifth and final three-time winner to date, and quite possibly the only horse that could, should and would have had four Champion Hurdles. The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 denied Istabraq the opportunity to make history – but the Aidan O’Brien-trained horse will still go down as one of the Cheltenham Festival’s finest.
Istabraq won in 1998 by an emphatic 12 lengths, and comfortably won in the two years that followed. He returned in 2002 bidding for history, but the now 10-year-old pulled up early in a bittersweet moment. Jockey Charlie Swan rode Istabraq to four successive Irish Champion Hurdles and many more major wins as the horse racked up over £1,000,000 in career earnings. A Cheltenham hero and arguably the best Champion Hurdle runner of all time.
A winner of the Novices’ Hurdle at the 2003 Cheltenham Festival, Hardy Eustace returned to the scene a year later as a 33/1 shot for the Champion Hurdle. A bold, front-running performance under the guidance of Conor O’Dwyer led to a shock victory as Dessie Hughes joined the exclusive club of winning a Champion Hurdle as both jockey (Monksfield 1979) and trainer.
Hardy Eustace was back as an eight-year-old to defend his crown, this time as the 7/2 favourite, and he did exactly that – winning by a neck to fend off Harchibald and Brave Inca in a Festival thriller.
Ruby Walsh became the second jockey to win four Champion Hurdles when winning on Annie Power in 2016, but it was Hurricane Fly that got things moving for the great man with victories in 2011 and 2013 – also giving trainer Willie Mullins his first Champion Hurdle triumph.
With 22 Grade 1 wins to his name – a world record until Winx overtook him in 2019 – Hurricane Fly is one of racing’s true greats, never mind just Cheltenham. He was denied back-to-back wins by Rock On Ruby, but he bounced back a year later to see off the 2012 champ and claim a historic second success.
The most recent dual-winner, Buveur D’Air claimed back-to-back wins for Nicky Henderson in 2017 and 2018. French-bred and British-trained, Buveur D’Air was a comfortable winner, and he narrowly repeated a year later, beating Melon by a neck during an undefeated season.
Noel Fehily was on board for the first of the Champion Hurdle triumphs, earning his second win in the race after riding Rock On Ruby five years earlier. The second was under the stewardship of Barry Geraghty, his third on three different horses. But no jockey had ever won four Champion Hurdles on four separate horses before…
Barry Geraghty joined Tim Malony and Ruby Walsh on the list of jockeys to have won the Champion Hurdle four times, but he became the only one to do it with four different horses when cruising home with Epatante last year.
Is Epatante among the Champion Hurdle greats? Not yet. But the mare is elite with eight wins from 10 runs. If she’s back to her best then things could be ominous for the opposition, and Geraghty could stand alone with five Champion Hurdle victories. Epatante is 5/2 in the Cheltenham betting to win the 2021 Champion Hurdle and join the list of multiple winners. Will she do it?
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