The Cheltenham Gold Cup

race4The Cheltenham Festival is one of the most exciting days in the National Hunt calendar. Through a combination of prestigious races during the week through to the Irish invasion that takes place every year, anyone who knows anything about horse racing looks forward to the Festival from the moment the clock strikes twelve to usher in the new year. We’ve looked at the three big races that take place over the preceding three days, but now we’re going to explore the big one.

As you’ll know if you’ve had a look at our pages on the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Cheltenham Festival is full of races that deserve respect. None of them seize the imagination in the same way as the Gold Cup, however. Along with the Grand National, it is one of the most thrilling and prestigious jump races in the world of horse racing. Here’s a look at all of the important things you need to know about the Grade 1 race called the Gold Cup and how it’s changed over the years.

Race Facts

NameFencesDistanceWinner / PurseGrade
The Cheltenham Gold Cup 22 3m, 2f, 70y £351,688 / £625,000 Grade 1

There’s a reason that the Gold Cup is seen as a real challenge for the best horses in the business. It is a relentless, challenging race that lasts for over 5,331 metres or three miles and two and a half furlongs. The distance alone would be hard work, but what makes it particularly challenging are the jumps, of which there are twenty-two to be completed.

This obviously isn’t a race for young, inexperienced horses. For that reason it’s open to five-year-olds and older with a weight of eleven stone eight pounds or eleven stone ten pounds for horses that are older than six. There’s a seven pound allowance for mares. The left-handed race is run on the New Course and has been ever since 1959, as we mentioned earlier.

100 Guineas was the prize given to Spectre when he won the flat race on Cleeve Hill way back in 1819. Sufficed to say that has changed a wee bit over the years. When it was re-inaugurated, if you will, in 1924 as a jump-race it had grown to become £685.

From there it has shot-up year on year and by 2019 and had £625,000 in the pot, making it Britain and Ireland’s most valuable non-handicap chase.

Race Trivia

Excluding two years during the Second World War when it the meeting was cancelled in its entirety, the Gold Cup has been called off three times since its re-invention as a jump race in 1924. The first time this happened was when there was a severe frost in 1931. The second time was due to terrible flooding six years later, and the third time was when foot-and-mouth disease spread throughout the United Kingdom and it was decided that it would be wise to call off the Festival completely.
When the Cheltenham Festival was abandoned because of that foot-and-mouth outbreak in 1924 ir was decided that a replacement set of races would be held at Sandown instead. The Gold Cup equivalent, named the 'Gold Trophy Chase', was won by Marlborough. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t receive the respect that the Gold Cup garners.
There was something unique about Linwell, the winner of the trophy in 1957. He had been trained by man named Ivor Herbert. 'What’s unique about that?', you may well ask. Well Herbert was actually not allowed to hold a trainer’s licence owing to the fact that he was also a journalist.
Controversy reigned at the 1980 running of the Gold Cup. Tied Cottage won the race and punters that had backed him celebrated all over the land, only to have their celebrations curtailed when he was disqualified for testing positive for a banned substance in the aftermath of the race.
When Golden Miller won the Gold Cup for the first time in 1932 he was just five years old. That was somewhat appropriate, considering that Red Splash was also five when he won the first ever Gold Cup jump race in 1924. The only other horse to win the trophy at such a young age was Patron Saint, who did so in 1928.
The oldest age at which a horse has picked up the small but significant trophy is twelve. That has happened twice, with Silver Fame achieving it in 1951 and What A Myth doing so in in 1969. No horse over the age of nine has won it since ten-year-old Cool Dawn did in 1998.
Willie Mullins finally won the Gold Cup in 2019 with Al Boum Photo, completing the set for the trainer that has saddled more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone else.  Prior to this he had come second in the blue riband race no less than 6 times.

Cheltenham Gold Cup History

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Anyone with a good knowledge about the history of the Cheltenham Festival will know that the Gold Cup in its current format isn’t the race that used to bear that name. In actual fact, a flat race by the name of the Gold Cup took place on Cleeve Hill, close to the current venue, in July of 1819. It was a three mile race that was won by a horse named Spectre; a somewhat appropriate name considering that the word means 'ghost' or 'phantom' and the flat race version of the Gold Cup is nothing more than a memory nowadays.

It’s strange to think of the Gold Cup in its current format as being something of an 'also ran', but that’s essentially what it was when it was run for the first time as a jump race on the 12th of March in 1924. It took place on the Old Course, though at the time it was simply the racecourse, obviously. The winner was given £685 in prize winnings, but that was nothing compared to the £1000 that was awarded to the winner of the County Handicap Hurdle. There was also a race known as the National Hunt Chase that was seen as the most prestigious event to take place on Cheltenham Racecourse at the time.

It wasn’t until 1959 that the Gold Cup moved over to the New Course and started to take on the importance that it holds today. From that moment on it grew in importance and prestige, eventually gaining a commercial sponsor when Piper Champagne took on the honour in 1972. In 1980 sponsorship of the race was taken over by The Tote and it continued its sponsorship until The Tote was bought out by Betfred in 2011.

In 2014 the bookmakers themselves began to sponsor the race, but the following year the Jockey Club and Arena Racing introduced a rule that said a betting company could only sponsor a race on one of its tracks if they also contributed to the racing community from their offshore businesses, something that Betfred didn’t do. Consequently Timico then sponsored it and have more recently been taken over by cider brand Magners.

Different companies may have sponsored it over the years but that information will have largely passed the average punter by. To the majority of people it is simply 'the Gold Cup' and to an extent that is a large part of the reason it’s remained so popular. Some races change their names and the way they’re run, but the Gold Cup has stayed reliably identifiable. Add to that the fact that the name contains a precious metal and you get the sense that people from all over the world associate with the romance and excitement of imagining what it would mean to win it. No wonder the most famous owners, trainers and jockeys in horse racing take the event so seriously.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Famous Winners

trophy room at cheltenham racecourse

You may well be wondering what happened between 1924, when the race was run in its jumping format for the first time, and 1959 when it was moved over to the New Course. It’s entirely fair of you to ask and the answer also provides some of the reasoning for why the Gold Cup became the world famous event that it did. For no matter what a race is called or where it is held, it needs to do something special to capture the imagination of the race-going crowd.

Step forward Golden Miller. There was a fear that the race might lose people’s interest before it had really even grabbed it when it was abandoned due to frost in 1931. In 1932 the race went ahead ok and was won by the aforementioned Golden Miller. That wouldn’t be enough to grab the attention in and of itself, but Golden Miller also won the Gold Cup the following year. And the year after that. And the year after that. And the year after that. Golden Miller won the Gold Cup five years in a row, something that has not been repeated since. It may even have won it in 1937 had that year’s racing not been abandoned due to flooding.

The Gold Cup was again cancelled in both 1943 and 1944, though on those occasions it was nothing to do with the weather. Instead the continuation of the Second World War meant that it was decided that it would be unwise and unsafe to run the event. Another remarkable feat was achieved from 1948 to 1950 when the Gold Cup was won on three consecutive years by a horse named Cottage Rake. Incidentally, Cottage Rake’s victory is believed to have been the catalyst for the immense interest in the race that the Irish public have, given that the horse was trained by Vincent O’Brien over on the Emerald Isle.

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Of all the horses that have won the Gold Cup on multiple occasions it’s unlikely that any have taken the public’s heart in the way that Arkle did. Between 1964 and 1966 he won three back-to-back Gold Cups and was such a favourite that by the time he ran in the race in 1966 his starting price was 1/10. To this day he remains the shortest odds winner ever to triumph in the big race on the Festival’s final day. Arkle was given a Timeform rating of 212, which remains the best score ever given to a steeplechaser.

Other horses have repeated Arkle’s trick of winning three consecutive races. the most recent was Best Mate, who won all three meetings in the years that followed the cancellation of the Festival in 2001 because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. A feat that could perhaps be described as equally impressive was achieved by Kauto Star in the same decade. Having won the Gold Cup in 2007 he was beaten in the 2008 outing, failing to defend his title. He bounced back in 2009, however, becoming the first horse in Gold Cup history to regain the trophy. Whether or not that’s as impressive as Dawn Run’s achievement in 1986, when she became the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup is a matter of opinion.

Another moment of note in Cheltenham Gold Cup history occurred in 1983. Silver Buck was out to defend his title, coming out of the Harewood stables under his trainer Michael Dickinson. He was under par, as was his stablemate Wayward Lad, but Dickinson, the son of trainers Monica and Tony, felt some pressure to race them anyway. Combs Ditch was also in the race for trainer David Elsworth, so the Dickonson’s needed every edge they could get. It made a difference, with his horse Bregawn, ridden by Graham Bradley, winning the race. That was impressive enough considering the level of horses in the race, but what really made 1983 stand out was the fact that Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House were the first five horses in the race and they were all trained by Dickinson.

CBO Rating 10/10

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A long race on an unforgiving course and with 22 jumps to get over, it’s little wonder that the Gold Cup is considered to be one of the toughest steeplechases in the world. A suitable way to round of one of British and Irish racings most fascinating meetings.