When the Cheltenham Festival rolls around, most people want to have a bet on the horses that will win the various races that take place during the week. Some will branch out a little bit and place a wager on the Champion Trainer, mulling up whether to opt for Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson or another one of the many options open to them. Few people consider whether or not to bet on the Prestbury Cup, however.
That’s because not everyone will have heard of the Prestbury Cup, which is a trophy awarded to either the British or the Irish depending on which nation manages to gain the most winners during Festival week. It doesn’t matter when a horse wins the Gold Cup or the Mares’ Hurdle, if they get a win on the board then that counts towards the nation that they were trained’s Prestbury Cup tally. We’ll explain it more here.
The Prestbury Cup Explained
Will British trained horses notch up more wins during the Cheltenham Festival, or will that honour be taken by horses trained in Ireland? That’s the question that is asked by those that award the Prestbury Cup. It is a question that was asked for years before the Prestbury Cup’s invention, actually, ever since Cottage Rake won his first Gold Cup and the Irish fell in love with the Festival.
The competition between the British and Irish trainers was made official in 2014 when the Prestbury Cup was awarded for the first time. In order to win it, one of the nations has to win 15 or more of the 28 races on offer during Festival week, with both nations winning 14 apiece ending up in a tie.
Of course, there are trainers of other nationalities at the Festival so in theory you may not need to get to 15 to win, in reality since the cup started only one horse has won a race that wasn’t trained in Britain or Ireland. That French winner was, however, in 2020 so perhaps in time the Prestbury Cup will be opened up more widely to other nations.
A piece of the actual turn from the racecourse is inserted into the cup, so a part of Cheltenham always goes home with the winners.
We will try to update this section of the site every year to ensure that the current list of winners of the Prestbury Cup is kept up-to-date. That’s because it’s impossible not to talk about the Prestbury Cup without considering whether or not the British or the Irish have done better at it over the years. The simple answer is that it changes from year to year, with the British starting well and the Irish coming roaring back more recently.
Given that the Prestbury Cup wasn’t created until 2014, there isn’t currently a huge amount of information to work with. The British would doubtless complain that the countless years that they won more races than the Irish aren’t taken into account when using that as the starting date, but given that that is the official year that the competition in its current format got underway, it’s what we have to use as our starting point.
Here is the official tally of the winners of the Prestbury Cup from 2014 until the modern day:
|Year||Total Number Of Races||British Winners||Irish Winners||Cup Winners|
|Total||–||91 (11 Average)||130 (16 Average)||Britain 2 Ireland 5 Draw 1|
Across the seven years of action that the Prestbury Cup has been in existence for, there have been 222 races in total. Of those, the Irish have won 130 and the British have won 91, with one race being won by a French-trained horse. Put another way, the Irish have won 58.6% of all races across seven years compared to the British winning 41.3% of them. In other words, the Irish currently have the upper hand.
Whilst the Irish might be leading the way right now, it won’t last forever. We’ll see in the coming years whether the likes of Brexit will have an impact on the Irish ability to dominate at the Cheltenham Festival, whilst Willie Mullins will surely consider retirement at some stage. The battle for the Prestbury Cup will always be a fierce one, so it’s exciting to see how it pans out in the future.
Prestbury Cup History
Cottage Rake, an Irish-trained horse, won the Gold Cup for the first time in 1948. That event alone would have been enough for many from the Emerald Isle to fall in love with events that take place at Prestbury Park every March, but when he won it again in 1949 and then got the hat-trick in 1950 the relationship between the Cheltenham Festival and Irish horse racing lovers was set in stone.
There has long been a complicated relationship between the Irish and the British, which is far too complex to go into here. Sufficed to say, however, that the idea of a bit of friendly competition appealed to all parties, especially the British when they racked up more winners than their neighbours more often than not. Cottage Rake turned out to be the exception that proved the rule: the Irish couldn’t train racehorses.
Irish Take A While To Win Consistently
Given that Cottage Rake’s only other particularly noteworthy wins as a horse came in the Irish Cesarewitch and the King George VI Chase, you can understand why many felt that the horse just loved running in Gloucestershire. It was the spark that lit the touch paper of Ireland’s love for the Cheltenham Festival, but if they were hoping that it was also be the start of an Irish conquering of the British meeting then they were left disappointed.
It took trainers from the Emerald Isle decades to win at Prestbury Park on a regular basis, with winners coming in fits and starts rather than any sort of concerted effort. That can be demonstrated by the fact that just 5% of the winners of races in the 1988 Festival were Irish, creeping to just over 10% two years later. To make matters worse, zero Irish horses managed to make it into the Winner’s Enclosure in the intervening year.
The Millennium Sees Things Change
There were sporadic numbers of Irish-trained winners during the 1980s and 1990s, but never enough for the country to get properly excited about. The numbers began to rise steadily, if not impressively, after the turn of the millennium. Once the 2010s hit, however, things began to change more rapidly for the Irish, not least of all because of the ever-growing influence of a trainer named Willie Mullins.
When you realise that 2010 was the last time that the Champion Hurdle was run without a single horse that emerged from Mullins’ yard, you can get a sense of just how important he has been to the success of the Irish at the Gloucestershire racecourse. Irish runners outperformed their British counterparts to such an extent that a bet on all of them during the 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019 Festivals would have left you in profit.
Mullins & Elliott Take Control
Between 2010 and 2019, there were 129 Irish-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival. Of those, 75 of them came from the yards of either Gordon Elliott or Willie Mullins. If that doesn’t indicate just how important those two trainers are to Ireland’s hopes of success at Prestbury Park then perhaps nothing will, with Mullins being the more prolific of the two thanks to his 50 of those wins.
Names such as Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Tony Martin are all well-known in the jump racing world, yet all of them trail behind Mullins in virtually every respect. They all help to add winners to the Prestbury Cup tally, but when you consider that Mullins has won pretty much every race that takes place during Festival week you realise that he’s the true driving force behind the country’s success.
Mullins Pips De Bromhead In Irish Walkover, But He Won’t Mind
The 2021 Festival was unique in the fact it was held behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time. This, however, did absolutely nothing to change the wind when it came to Irish domination, with Irish trainers winning 23 out of 28 races, a staggering 82%.
While Prestbury Cup was a walkover long before the final day started but what was not clear was who would be top trainer. Henry de Bromhead was leading Willie Mullins 6-5 before the start of the Gold Cup thanks to wins in the likes of the Champion Hurdle (where Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the race) and the Queen Mothers Champions Chase.
De Bromhead won the first race of the day and with Mullins one behind Henry pulled out a spectacular victory in the Gold Cup to make the lead to 7-5 with two races to go. In traditional Mullins fashion though he went and won the final two races to make it 7-7 and take the top trainer title thanks to more place finishes. De Bromhead won’t mind though as he became the first ever trainer to win the Champion Hurlde, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at the same meeting.
Why Have The Irish Been So Successful In Modern Times?
From 2010 to 2019, horses trained in Ireland have won 39 handicap events, with the split being 24 to 15 in favour of hurdles over steeplechases. That can’t be pinned on Mullins’ success, given that 42 of his 50 wins during that period of time came in non-handicap Graded races. Instead, it is suggestive of the Irish getting a helping hand from the handicapper, who decides the weights that each horse in a handicap event will carry.
Between 2010 and 2015, the Irish won 27% of the handicap races. That increased to 52% during the end of the period that we’re looking at, meaning that the figures indicate that the Irish dominance has been largely thanks to the handicap races that the horses are entered into. In the 2017 Festival, for example, Irish horses won seven of the ten handicap races that they took part in, showing that they travel very well to Cheltenham.
Born in 1956 Willie Mullins will due to retire at some point in the coming years and with Gordon Elliott’s future uncertain following his ban in 2021, it is possible the Cup could swing back to Britain in coming years. Elliott is a relatively young trainer though and if he can get over the difficulties he caused himself with a dead horse photograph then perhaps he can still be the next Willie Mullins, or even better. There are plenty of other elite Irish trainers though that can come and fill the void. The question is can the Brits keep up?
Leopardstown Is The Perfect Preparation
Arguably the biggest meeting that takes place before the Cheltenham Festival gets underway is the one at Leopardstown in Ireland. There were 78 Irish-trained winning horses at the Festivals that took place between 2015 and 2019, of which 29 of them ran at Leoparstown for their final race before heading to Gloucestershire. The fact that the Irish track bears similarities to Cheltenham undoubtedly helps.
Both tracks are run left-handed and the paid of them are known to be galloping tracks, which means that the practice that horses get at Leopardstown sets them up perfectly for their run outs at Prestbury Park. Twenty-one of the 29 Irish winners we’re referring to either won their Leopardstown race or else came second, meaning that Irish horses are given a chance to find their form ahead of the Festival’s commencement.
Where The Trophy Gets Its Name
You can read about the history of the Cheltenham Festival in-depth elsewhere on this site, but those of you that already have will know that the meeting’s beginnings were initially somewhat fractious. The first ever horse racing meeting in the area saw hundreds of people turn out to Nottingham Hill to whoop and cheer as the horses ran around a somewhat improvised circuit, with Confederacy winning the Gloucestershire Stakes.
In 1818, three years after that initial meeting, a more formal and organised one took place at Cleeve Hill. For a number of reasons, it was decided that the races couldn’t remain at their new location, instead seeing them moved to nearby Prestbury Park in 1831. That soon became the permanent home of the course that would grow to become Cheltenham Racecourse as we know and understand it to be today.
Geographically, the closest village to where the racecourse stands is one called Prestbury. The village is linked to both the local park and the racecourse, with the course itself often referred to by people as Prestbury Park. Was the new trophy named after the village of Prestbury or the park that the racing took place on? That’s something that is a matter of some debate, but to all intents and purposes it doesn’t really matter much.