Ask most people about horse racing and they’ll tell you about the importance of the horses and the key difference a good jockey can make. Not everyone will think to mention the trainer, in spite of the fact that they do arguably the most important work of all those involved in the industry. Whilst a good jockey can be the difference between a horse winning and coming second, a talented trainer is why they’re even in the conversation in the first place.
The beauty of the Cheltenham Festival is such that it’s longevity allows us to identify the trainers that have made the biggest impact in certain races. Though it’s certainly true that the best trainers will be competitive in most races, the fact that it took Willie Mullins until 2019 to win the Gold Cup for the first time and until 2022 to complete the set demonstrates that they’re better placed to be successful in some races over others. Here’s a look at those that have bossed certain Cheltenham events.
Cheltenham Festival Races Record Trainer Wins
It is hard to train a horse to win any Cheltenham Festival race let alone train multiple winners in the same race. It is therefore quite astonishing that of all the 28 Festival races shown here only 3 have a record trainer other than Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson, Jonjo O’Neill or Paul Nicholls.
The most impressive record has to be Willie Mullins 12 wins in the Champion Bumper, which tops the list as the Festival race won the most times by the same trainer. Joint-second on the list is the Mares’ Hurdle won nine times also by Willie Mullins. Nicky Henderson dominates 3rd-5th on the list with record wins in the Champion Hurdle (9 wins), Triumph Hurdle and Arkle Challenge Trophy (both 7). Mullins has trained and outstanding 94 winners in total at the Festival.
In fact, you have to go down to 8th, National Hunt Chase, just to find a race that doesn’t have either Mullins or Henderson as the record trainer. This time it is Jonjo O’Neill with six wins. Even the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 8th is held by these three trainers all with 6 wins, one of which is Nicky Henderson with the others being Paul Nicholls and Tom Dreaper.
Special mention must be given to Tom Dreaper who holds the Gold Cup trainer record with 5 wins and has done since 1968. Fred Rimell and Fulke Walwyn also have stood the test of time still holding records in the Festival Trophy Chase and the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup. Edna Bolger is the best trainer of cross-country horses having won the Cross-Country Chase five times, and she didn’t even train the record winner Tiger Roll.
Tiger Roll was, however, trained by Gordon Elliott who appears in this list a couple of times. Given Elliott only had his first winner at the Festival in 2011 and has already notched up 37 wins to date, despite being banned in 2021. At only 45 years old expect to see the Irishman’s name more and more in the above table as the years roll by. He is perhaps going to be the heir to Mullins when the legend finally retires and Gordon has already won the top trainer title two times, the only man to beat Mullins to that title since 2013.
Write a list of the jump races that have been won by the same trainer the most often and the name of Willie Mullins will always be on it sooner rather than later. Here’s a look at just some of the races run during the Cheltenham Festival that he has been able to win almost single-handedly at times.
It might have taken Willie Mullins might have grown used to the idea of his horses finishing second in the Gold Cup, but the Irish trainer has dominated the Champion Bumper since his first win in the event in 1996. A Grade 1 event for horses aged between four and six, the Champion Bumper is run over two miles and 87 yards and has the following weight information attached to it:
- 4-year-olds: 10 stone 12 pounds
- 5 & 6-year-olds: 11 stone 5 pounds
Established in 1992 as the Festival Bumper, it is a race aimed at giving inexperienced horses their first taste of life at Prestbury Park. Perhaps that’s why Mullins is so good at winning it regularly, given the fact that he himself has enjoyed a huge amount of Cheltenham Festival experience. He began working as a racehorse trainer in 1988 whilst he was still riding, with his first win as a trainer in the Champion Bumper being with a horse he was also riding, Wither Or Which.
He not only knows what it takes to win the race as a jockey but also what experience a horse needs to have in order to take the fight to their competitors. Given the fact that it is technically a flat race, it is perhaps a little strange that such an accomplished jump racing trainer is so capable of winning it. Yet it is as much about the horses gaining experience of the environment as it is the race itself, which Mullins is more than capable of doing.
Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle
The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, which is registered as the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, is an example of a race that Willie Mullins understands intrinsically and is therefore incredibly hard to beat in. The Grade 1 event is for fillies and mares aged four and over, with the following weight information at play:
- 4-year-olds: 10 stone 11 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 5 pounds
Run over a distance of two miles, three furlongs and 200 yards, the race asks competitors to jump over ten hurdles before it reaches its conclusion. Perhaps the fact that its registered title pays homage to someone who was both a successful trainer and jockey is part of the reason why Mullins feels an affinity towards it, given that that description could easily be placed on his own obituary when the time finally comes.
Of course, when analysing the reason why Willie Mullins has won the race so many times, it’s impossible to look away from the fact that Quevega won it six times in succession between 2009 and 2014. Obviously Mullins’ training played a big part in that, but when a horse understands a race as clearly as Quevega did with this one the trainer is best off getting out of their way and letting them do their thing. Mullins knew that well.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Much like the Champion Bumper, Willie Mullins’ ability to dominate proceedings in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is likely to be down to the fact that he knows how to get an inexperienced horse ready for the Cheltenham Festival. It’s another Grade 1 race, this time open to horses aged four and over. It’s run over two miles and 87 yards and the the following weight information has to be taken into account:
- 4-year-olds: 11 stone 0 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 7 pounds
- Fillies and mares receive an allowance of 7 pounds
The race features eight hurdles that the horses must jump, meaning that it’s another event that Mullins has mastered that gets horses to jump hurdles over a distance of just over two miles. The race used to be split into separate divisions and the most successful trainer ever in it was Vincent O’Brien, but Mullins has been the main winner of it since it was revamped in 1972.
Perhaps the fact that this was the first race of the Cheltenham Festival that Mullins won as a trainer meant that it held a special place in the Irishman’s heart. He may subconsciously have given it that little bit more attention over the years, hoping that he could carry on where he started from by winning it as often as possible. Whatever the reason, he’s figured out how to claim victory in the race and repeats it as often as possible.
If Willie Mullins’ name isn’t at the top of the list of trainers who have won a race the most times then it’s more than likely that that’s because the name of Nicky Henderson is there instead. The man who regularly competes with Mullins to be named the Champion Trainer of the Cheltenham Festival does so thanks to his skill at winning certain races regularly, as we’ll look at here.
The Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927 and is a Grade 1 offering that takes place over two miles and 87 yards. It is a race for horses aged four and over, featuring eight hurdles that they must jump if they hope to be in with a chance of winning. The last leg of the Triple Crown of Hurdling, it is considered by many to be hurdling’s most prestigious event and the list of winners features some recognisable names. Here’s the weight information:
- 4-year-olds: 11 stone 3 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Fillies and mares receive an allowance of 7 pounds
When considering why Nicky Henderson has trained so many winners in the event, it’s worth looking at the fact that he is also the leading trainer in both the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and the Christmas Hurdle; the other legs that make up the Triple Crown. In other words, he is a trainer that knows how to get hurdlers ready to take on the biggest events in their discipline and the races at Cheltenham are no exception.
At the time of writing, five horses have won the race three times and one of them, See You Then, was trained by Henderson. Another of his horses, Buveur D’Air, has won it twice, all of which adds to his name being on the leading trainer’s list. It certainly doesn’t harm Henderson that he has been J. P. McManus’s trainer of choice, meaning that he’ll often get to work with some of the best hurdlers in the business.
JCB Triumph Hurdle
Given what we know about Nicky Henderson, it’s no surprise to see that another of the races high on his list of accomplishments is the JCB Triumph Hurdle. Aimed at horses aged four that have a weight of 11 stone, with fillies given a seven pound allowance, the race is run over a distance of two miles and 179 yards. There are eight hurdles jumped during the running, challenging the inexperienced horses.
It’s aimed at juvenile novice hurdlers, who could not be in better hands when it comes to learning the ropes of winning a hurdles race than those of the man who has made it his speciality. That it is the leading race in the National Hunt calendar obviously lends itself to Henderson doing well in it, given that he’ll be asked to work with the best horses that are looking to make a name for themselves as hurdlers.
The horses that do well in the race often go on to compete in the Champion Hurdle, so there’s a clear link between the two events. It’s hardly surprising that a man who is good at training horses for one would also be talented at getting them ready for the other. With Henderson being an extraordinary coach when it comes to hurdling, no one will be shocked to learn that its his name so closely associated with both.
Arkle Challenge Trophy
As if to prove that it’s not just hurdling events that Nicky Henderson knows how to win, the next race on the list of events that he’s won the most often is the Arkle Challenge Trophy. A Grade 1 offering that is run over one mile, seven furlongs and 199 yards, it is open to horses aged five and over that have a weight of 11 stone and four pounds, though mares receive an allowance of seven pounds.
There are 13 fences to be jumped during the course of the Arkle, which is nowhere near the most in the Cheltenham Festival and perhaps explains why Henderson has such an affinity for it. It’s a race aimed at novice chasers, meaning that the horse are only just moving from the world of hurdling and will therefore be ones that Henderson is comfortable working with and helping them with the transition.
Henderson won the race for the first time in 1991 when he trained Remittance Man to cross the finish line first. That’s a horse that he had already seen to wins in the likes of the Bristol Novices’ Hurdle and the Hopeful Chase, who would also go on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase. It will have given Henderson a taste for winning such a race, which is something that he repeated time and again.
The final person that we’re going to look at here is Jonjo O’Neill, who hasn’t won as many races numerous times as both Mullins and Henderson but who has been a mainstay of Cheltenham Festival winners on enough occasions to merit his place on the list. The Irish National Hunt trainer won the British Champion Trainer title on two occasions, meaning that he knows what it takes to win on the biggest stage.
National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup
The National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup is run over a distance of three miles, five furlongs and 201 yards, featuring 23 fences during that time. The fact that it is only open to amateur riders is part of what makes it an event that is one that O’Neill has been able to master. It’s his ability to work with horses as someone that understands what a young jockey needs from them that is behind his success in the event.
Open to horses aged five and over, the following weight information is at play:
- 5-year-olds: 11 stone 5 pounds
- 6-year-olds and over: 11 stone 6 pounds
- Mares are given an allowance of 7 pounds
The race is for novice chasers with novice jockeys on their backs, so it’s little wonder that O’Neill has been able to stamp his mark on it so many times. He knows what it takes to be a winning jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, having twice won the Gold Cup as well as the Champion Hurdle the same number of times. It’s not a coincidence that he’s won this race the most times, combining his knowledge and his experience to great effect.
Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle
A Premier Handicap race open to horses aged five and over, the Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle is run over two miles, seven furlongs and 213 yards. It features 12 hurdles during its running, making it one of the hurdle races with the most obstacles for the horses to contend with. Established in 1974, there are a number of qualifying races that horses must win if they hope to take part in this event.
As a jockey, O’Neill won a large number of hurdle races, meaning that he was well-placed to be able to help the jockeys that he worked with know what needed to be done to win. Perhaps more importantly, he knew what the jockeys would want from their horses, meaning that he could train the horses in such a way so as to get the best out of them when they were running in a hurdling event.
The likes of the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and the County Handicap Hurdle are all on the list of races that O’Neill has won a couple times as a trainer, which perhaps helps to explain his affinity to working with hurdlers. He was also riding Dawn Run when she won both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle during the Festival, so he knows what it takes to win in the biggest races during the meeting.
Whilst it is unlikely that any trainer is going to get close to Willie Mullins at any point, there are some trainers that have been able to take the Irishman on in certain events during the Cheltenham Festival. One such example is Paul Nicholls, who has seen his horses win the Gold Cup on more than a few occasions, is the top trainer in not one but two events that take place during Festival week. There is barely a Festival race that he hasn’t had a winner in, but here’s a look at those two events that he’s been able to make his own:
Run over two miles, seven furlongs and 213 yards, the Stayers’ Hurdle is a Grade 1 even that tends to be run on the New Course. There are 12 hurdles that the horses need to get over if they want to win the race, which adds a degree of difficulty to an already challenging event. It is run left handed and the horses that take part in it have to be aged four or over. The following weight information is at play:
- 4-year-olds: 10 stone 9 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Fillies and mares are given an allowance of 7 pounds
First run in 1912, the Stayers’ Hurdle has been taken off the roster a couple of times during its history. When it comes to Paul Nicholls’ success in it, he owes a huge amount to the success of Big Buck’s. The horse won the event four times in succession between 2009 and 2012, which is also why Ruby Walsh is the leading jockey in the event. For Nicholls, it was enough to make him close to un-touchable in the event; the next closest trainer has only won the race twice, so Nicholls is unlikely to have the record taken off him any time soon.
Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase
First run in 1834, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase takes place over one mile, seven furlongs and 99 yards. It is a race for horses aged five and over and is a handicap event. That means that the handicapper decides how much weight each horse carries in order to make the race as fair as possible. They than have to get over the fourteen fences before the end of the race if they’re to try to win the event. For Paul Nicholls, his horses have managed to do that four times, which is one more than the next closest trainer. That that trainer was Fulke Walwyn probably tells you something.
The record is for trainers post-1946, which is when it is thought of as being the ‘modern’ version of the event. That is relevant because it is the oldest race that is run at the Festival, as well as being the oldest race in the National Hunt calendar. Johnny Henderson’s name was added to the race in 2005, with Henderson, the father of Nicky, being responsible for the protection of Cheltenham Racecourse when he was one of the founding members of the Racecourse Holdings Trust. It was a Grade 3 race until 2023, at which point the British Horseracing Authority re-branded Grade 3s to become Premier Handicap races.
Unlike with the Stayers’ Hurdle, Nicholls’ success is not due to the ability of one horse. Whilst Big Buck’s won the Stayers’ four times, the four wins that Nicholls has enjoyed Grand Annual success has come thanks to four different horses. They are St Pirran in 2004, Andreas three years later, Solar Impulse in 2016 and then Le Prezien two years after that. Those wins all came when the race was on the Old Course, being switched to the New Course in 2021 as part of a move from Cheltenham to mix up when the various races were held and where they were run.