Everybody with even the slightest interest in horse racing has heard of the Gold Cup. It is the event that the entire Cheltenham Festival builds up to, the moment that all of the best horses and jockeys have been waiting for since the turn of the year. Everything needs to start somewhere, however, and they don’t call the four days at Cheltenham a ‘festival’ for no reason.
The first day of the four days of the Cheltenham Festival is almost always a Tuesday. The Gold Cup might be the big event of the week, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the rest of the week is nothing more than filler. The Tuesday builds up to the first premium race of the week, the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle.
The left-handed race is open to horses of four years and older and is run over 3,319 metres, which is roughly two miles and 87 yards.
It includes eight hurdles and is run entirely on the Old Course at Cheltenham. Weight-wise it is for horses of eleven stone two pounds if they’re four years old, or eleven stone ten pounds for five year olds and upwards. There’s an allowance of seven pounds for both fillies and mares.
When the race won run for the first time back in 1927 the winner received £365. It goes without saying that that has increased over the years.
Records For Most Wins
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Race Trends: Winners Since 2000
Prestige Earned Over Time
It might be fair to say that the race has not always been considered to be the prestigious event that it is today. When it was run in 1932 there were just three horses running in it, the smallest field that has ever run the Champion Hurdle
Stewards Overruled in 1964
The running of the 1964 race is notable for the degree of controversy that surrounds it. Race stewards actually objected to the winner of the Champion Hurdle, Magic Court, but their objections were overruled by the race organisers and the result stood
In 2001 It Was Held At Sandown
As with most of the other big races from the Festival, the Champion Hurdle was run in a different format at Sandown in 2001 when the meeting was cancelled due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. It doesn’t officially count as a Champion Hurdle win, however, so the horse that came home first, Landing Light, can’t be considered to have won the race
Four Year Olds
The race has been won by a horse of four years of age on five occasions. If you’re a real fan of trivia then you’ll be interested to know that the first two four-year-olds to win it both had ‘Brown’ in their name: Brown Jack in 1928 and Brown Tony in 1930. The last horse that young to win the Champion Hurdle was Forestation in 1942
Oldest Is 11
The oldest a horse has been when its won the race is eleven. That was how old Hatton’s Grace was when he won it for the third time in 1951 and it was also the age of the 1981 winner, Sea Pigeon
Two horses have been valued at 50/1 before they came under starters orders and then gone on to win it – firstly Kirriemuir in 1965 and then Beech Road in 1989. That is the longest odds of any horse to win the Champion Hurdle, with the next longest being For Auction who was 40/1 when winning it in 198.
Rachael Blackmore Becomes First Female Winner
Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the premier hurdle race of the year in 2021 when she rode favourite Honeysuckle home. She rode her first two Festival winners in 2019 in the Novices’ Handicap Chase and Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and then won the Mares’ Hurdle with Honeysuckle the year after in 2020. The Irish jockey then made history to take the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle the year after on the same horse.
Champion Hurdle History
It’s tricky to talk of Cheltenham without reference to the Gold Cup, such is the extent to which that race dominates proceedings. It’s relevant as far as the history of the Champion Hurdle is concerned because the Gold Cup was run as a jump race for the first time in 1924. Three years later and the Champion Hurdle was introduced, going on to be considered as one of the most prestigious hurdle races in British and Irish racing.
Though it was first run back in 1927, it would be untrue to suggest that it has been a flawless operation ever since. Four years after its inauguration, for example, it was abandoned completely thanks to a horrendous persistent frost that year that also took down the other main races. Like the rest of the Cheltenham Festival, the Champion Hurdle wasn’t run in either 1943 or 1944 because of the continuation of the Second World War making such things dangerous.
We’ll talk about the famous horses that have won the race shortly, but remember the year 1947. It’s worth mentioning because the race was delayed a number of times thanks to heavy winter snows, eventually taking place in the middle of April. The punters didn’t mind about the delays though, with over 30,000 people turning up to watch National Spirit race to victory.
Though it is currently sponsored by a bookmaker, sponsorship of the race is not a new phenomenon. Waterford Crystal was the first company to sponsor it back in 1978, once again following in the footsteps of the Gold Cup. The Smurfit Kappa Group sponsored the Champion Hurtle from 1991, with James beginning their partnership with the race in 2010. It’s not every race that is seen as important enough to earn sponsorship, so the fact that the Champion Hurdle has maintained its partnerships since 1978 goes some way to demonstrating how respected the race is amongst horse racing circles.
It hasn’t always been held on the first day of the Festival. When it was run for the first time back in 1927 it was actually on a Wednesday, moving to a Thursday for the following year. Between 1929 and 1939 it was held on the first day of the meeting, but it shifted back to a Wednesday in both 1940 and 1941. Perhaps even more unexpected was the move to Saturday that took place in both 1942 and 1945 (with the Festival being cancelled in 1943 and 1944 if you remember).
Tuesday was the race’s established day from 1946 through to 1960, apart from in 1947, when it was postponed to the Saturday, and in 1955 when it briefly returned to the Wednesday. Wednesday was its day between 1961 and 1979, apart from when it was run on a Friday in 1964. The permanent move to Tuesday came in 1980 and its been run on that day ever since.
Famous Champion Hurdle Winners
Remember earlier when we mentioned 1947? The reason for that was that between that year and 1955 the race was run by just three horses. National Sprint, Hatton’s Grace and Sir Ken shared the honour between them, with Hatton’s Grace becoming the first horse to win the race three times in a row. Sir Ken didn’t like being outdone, however, so he responded with three back-to-back wins straight after. His second win saw him priced at 2/5 and that is the shortest price ever given to a winner of the race.
Another set of horses took the stage in the 1970s. Persian War became the third horse to win the Champion Hurdle three times, with Night Nurse, Bula and Monksfield becoming double winners. Comedy of Errors became the first horse to regain the title by winning non-consecutive titles in the same decade. Dawn Run is a name that you’ll recognise if you’ve read our Gold Cup page. Not only was she the second mare to win the Champion Hurdle, but she is also the only horse to have won that and the Gold Cup.
Just as the 1950s was an era of dominance and the 1970s was the same, so too is the middle of the 1980s worthy of a shout. See You Then became the fourth horse to win the Champion Hurdle on three occasions, picking up back-to-back wins in 1985, 1986 and 1987. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that another horse would become a treble winner. Istabraq won it in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and may well have made history by winning it in 2001 had the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease not caused the Festival to be abandoned. He did attempt to run in 2002 but wasn’t in a good shape and failed to complete the race.
It’s only fair to point out that it isn’t all down to the horses for why they win any given race. Tim Molony won the Champion Hurdle for four years in a row, firstly on Hatton’s Grace in 1951 then on the back of Sir Ken for all three of his wins. Similarly Nicky Henderson deserves a shout. He has trained eight different winners, including See You Then for the hat-trick in the 1980s. J. P. McManus is the most successful owner of horses at the Champion Hurdle, again picking up a hat-trick with Istabraq in 1998, 1999 and 2000 as well as four in a row from 2017-2020 as part of 9 victories.
It is also worth paying attention to Honeysuckle, the Henry de Bromhead trained 2021 winner. That is not so much for the horse but more because it was ridden by Rachael Blackmore, who became the first woman jockey to win the race in its history since 1927. The elite Irish jockey had already ridden three previous winners at Cheltenham but became the first woman to win a Championship race.
CBO Rating 10/10
Seen as the final race in the ‘Road To Cheltenham’ and considered by many to be the official start of the Festival, the Champion Hurdle is a real test of a horse’s credentials on a remarkably tough course. Win this hurdle race and a horse could well go on to great things.