Is it Gold Cup time, yet? Well no, actually. It’s the right day for it, of course, but there are a number of races worthy of your attention before we get there. Day Four builds up to that most prestigious of events in the entire Festival week, starting with the Triumph Hurdle and then progressing to this race, the County Handicap Hurdle.
Though records for the race only date back as far as 1946, it actually started in 1920. For the majority of the race’s existence it was the last one of the entire Festival, but that changed in 2009 when it was moved to its current slot earlier on the final day. From 1995 to 2016 it was named in honour of Vincent O’Brien, a horserace trainer from Ireland who died in 1994 after twenty-three wins at the Festival. 2017 was the year that Randox Health took over sponsorship of the race.
|Course||Grade||Fences||Distance (m)||Winner / Purse|
|New Course||Grade 3||8||2m 179y (3382m)||£56,270 / £98,500|
Day Three is when the switch from the Old Course takes place, so the County Handicap Hurdle follows the form of other races on Days Three and Four in being run left-handed on the New Course. It lasts for two miles and one furlong, with eight hurdles to be jumped.
The Grade 3 race is for horses aged five and over and is a handicap race, so there are no specific weight restrictions.
Remarkably, despite records going back as far as 1946, no horse has ever won the race more than once. As you’ll have gathered from Paul Townend winning the race for the second time in 2017, the same isn’t the case for jockeys. As well as Townend, it has been won twice by F. Rees, Jonjo O’Neill, Richard Dunwoody, Timmy Murphy, Tony Dobbin, Tony McCoy and most recently Harry Skelton. George Duller won it three times in the 1920s, but it’s Ruby Walsh who holds the record with his four wins in the 2000s.
As we mentioned before, Willie Mullins has a particular affiliation with the County Handicap Hurdle. He trained the winning horse for the first time in 2010 thanks to Katie Walsh and Thousand Stars, then he won it again the following year. He notched up win number three in 2015 and his fourth in 2017. He made it 5 wins in 2020 with French horse Saint Roi.
Paul Nicholls is second on the trainer list with 4 wins, gaining his first win in 2004, his second in 2006, his third in 2009 and his most recent in 2014. Dan Skelton is the trainer of the moment racking up three wins in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
There have been eleven different occasions on which there was no race. The first time this happened was in 1931, when a severe frost meant horses couldn’t run on the course. In 1937 the problem was flooding, whilst the race was cancelled between 1943 and 1945 owing to the Second World War. Frost and snow returned in 1947, 1949 and 1955 stopping racing from taking place once more, with the same thing stopping matters in 1978. In the meantime, the 1975 running was cancelled because of more water logging. The most recent cancellation came about in 2001 when the foot-and-mouth crisis meant the whole festival was abandoned.
CBO Rating | 7/10
One of the best things about the Cheltenham Festival is the ebb and flow of the different days. Gold Cup Day gets underway with an exciting Grade 1 race for juveniles and is followed up almost immediately by this Grade 3 handicap race. Whilst juvenile races are always exciting because the youth of the horses involved means things could go any number of ways, handicap races are open thanks to the relatively fair nature of the race due to the horses taking part having a similar weight to carry.
If you want to know why this race is a good one to watch and have a flutter on then consider this, since 2007 the starting price of the winning horse has been 12/1, 50/1, 20/1, 20/1, 10/1, 20/1, 10/1, 11/1 25/1, 8/1, 20/1, 33/1, 12/1 and 11/2. It’s fair to say, then, that this is a race that can win you some money if you get your betting tactics right. Unlike in some more predictable races, it’s not just about going for the favourite. Have a look at the going, the experience of the horses in the race and the extra weight they’re likely to have to carry.
With each passing race on Day Four of the Cheltenham Festival, the excitement of the build-up to the Gold Cup cranks up a notch. This race is no exception, following on from the Triumph Hurdle as an event that promises any number of possibilities.