Some trainers treat the Cheltenham Festival like a numbers game, throwing as many horses at the meeting as possible and seeing what sticks. That’s not to diminish their accomplishment, with those that succeed still having to train their horses well enough to be competitive in the biggest jump racing events on the planet. Yet it’s also true that those that win with a smaller field have been even more impressive given that they couldn’t afford to make mistakes.
It’s not uncommon for punters to bet on a trainer to win a race rather than a horse, if their bookmaker of choice will allow them to place such a bet. Such is the extent to which trainers are held in high regard by the best bettors out there, many of them will look to see who trained a horse before they even consider the jockey that will be riding it. Indeed, one of the most popular betting markets at Cheltenham each year is betting on who will win the top trainer and top jockey titles. People also like to bet on the Prestbury Cup, that is the award given each year to the country that trains the most winners.
One of the most prestigious things in horse racing that a trainer can do is to win the top trainer title at the Cheltenham Festival. It basically says to the world this is an elite trainer of jump racing horses and solidifies their reputation for all time. Here we’ll have a look at the top trainers from Festivals gone by.
Cheltenham Festival Leading Trainers Last 10 Years
|2012||Nicky Henderson||United Kingdom||7||2||4|
When it comes to the Cheltenham Festival, one name stands out above all others, which is that of Willie Mullins. He’s been a dominant force for many a year, though others have done well to challenge him year after year. Above you can look at the Top Trainer from ten years’ worth of Festival meetings, considering how many races they’ve won, how many of their horses have come second and how many have come in third.
If proof were needed of Willie Mullins’ domination of the Festival then it’s easy to see in the table above. Even when the Top Trainer title was wrestled from his grip by Gordon Elliott in 2017, it was only because of the fact that Elliott trained one more second-place finisher than his Irish compatriot. Mullins actually trained one more third-place finisher, but it’s the 2nd places that count in the trainer standings.
Winners Since 1997: Irish Now On Top
|1997||Martin Pipe||United Kingdom||4|
|1998||Martin Pipe||United Kingdom||4|
|1999||Paul Nicholls||United Kingdom||3|
|2000||Nicky Henderson||United Kingdom||4|
|2002||Martin Pipe||United Kingdom||3|
|2004||Paul Nicholls||United Kingdom||4|
|2005||Howard Johnson||United Kingdom||3|
|2006||Paul Nicholls||United Kingdom||3|
|2007||Paul Nicholls||United Kingdom||4|
|2008||Paul Nicholls||United Kingdom||3|
|2009||Paul Nicholls||United Kingdom||5|
|2010||Nicky Henderson||United Kingdom||3|
|2012||Nicky Henderson||United Kingdom||7|
The Festival was cancelled in 2001 because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
We’ll speak more about Willie Mullins’ relationship with the Cheltenham Festival shortly, but for now, other than just how dominant he’s been over the years, the most noteworthy thing is how often Irish trainers have taken the top spot at the end of Festival week.
Between Mullins and Gordon Elliott, British trainers have barely got a look-in. Indeed, the only Top Trainer not from the Emerald Isle at the time we’re looking at is Nicky Henderson.
If we stretch our look back to 1997 then things do get slightly better for the British, largely thanks to the exploits of Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls. In the table above we are looking at the winning trainer from each year, as well as the country that they’re from and the number of wins that they achieved in the year that they won the Top Trainer title at the end of Festival week.
There are two things of note when it comes to looking at the table of Top Trainers since 1997, with the first one being the marked change between British and Irish winners. Jonjo O’Neill’s win in 2003 did little to stem the tide of British winners, whilst Nicky Henderson’s victory nine years later didn’t do anything to stop the succession of Irish winners, suggesting that there is a degree of momentum in place for winning trainers.
The other thing is the extent to which the number of wins needed to be crowned Top Trainer seemed to shoot up almost as soon as Willie Mullins arrived on the scene. In the late 1990s, 3 or 4 wins during the Festival would be enough to see you given the title, but in the wake of the Irishman’s first title the number of wins achieved by the Top Trainer only dipped as low as four on two occasions.
The sight of so many names on the table more than once also suggests that trainers get a taste for the Festival. It is the most prestigious event in jump racing, with virtually every race being one that people want to win. It’s little surprise, then, that trainers target the Festival with their best horses.
Since 2004 only Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson have won the title.
It’s impossible to talk about the Top Trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival and not have a section dedicated to Willie Mullins, such is the Irishman’s dominance of the event over the years. He won the Top Trainer title for the first time in 2011 and was either first or second every year between then and 2021.
The record of him and Gordon Elliott in both 2017 and 2018 could barely be separated, looking like this:
Even when he was second he only lost out on top spot by virtue of one or two horses. Hailing from Goresbridge, County Kilkenny in Ireland, Mullins spent the early part of his career working as a jockey. He made the switch to training horses in 1988, having worked for both Jim Bolger and his own father, Paddy Mullins, as an assistant before then. As an amateur jockey he was named Irish Champion six times.
Big wins for Mullins the jockey included the 1983 Fox Hunter Chase at Aintree Racecourse and the 1996 Cheltenham Bumper. The Bumper victory might well be what sparked his love affair with the Festival, given that he both rode and trained Wither Or Which. He trained eight winners during the Festival in 2015, which was a record that stood alone until Elliott equalled it three years later.
At the time of writing, Willie Mullins has trained 78 winners during Cheltenham Festivals. In spite of his incredible record, he didn’t win the Gold Cup until his success with Al Boum Photo in 2019. Like buses, though, wins came along one after the other and the same horse defended its title in the race the following year to ensure that Mullins will end his career with at least two Gold Cup wins to his name.
It would certainly be fair to say that Mullins’ speciality lies in training young horses, given that the race that he has won more than any other at the Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Bumper. His success in that race is as follows:
- Wither or Which in 1996
- Florida Pearl in 1997
- Alexander Banquet in 1998
- Joe Cullen in 2000
- Missed That in 2005
- Cousin Vinny in 2008
- Champagne Fever in 2012
- Briar Hill in 2013
- Relegate in 2018
- Ferny Hollow in 2020
- Sir Gerhard in 2021
The 2021 top trainer title seems to sum up Mullins dominance. Going into the last two races of the entire festival Mullins was two wins behind fellow Irish trainer Henry de Bromhead, so what did he go and do? Mullins trained horses won the last two races! This meant Willie took the title from Henry based on a higher number of 2nd/3rd placed finishes. It is almost like the title is drawn to him
It goes without saying that he’s been just as successful in Ireland, with Florida Pearl winning the Irish Gold Cup in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2004 after gaining that initial success in the Champion Bumper.
His association with the Cheltenham Festival will go down in history, though, and it will take another trainer many years to catch up with him in the all-time standings for the event.