Look at any information about the Cheltenham Festival and you’ll hardly fail to find out which jockey has won the most races and which trainers have seen their horses win more times than their rivals. When it comes to the owners, however, the information is far more difficult to come across. They don’t take the centre stage in the same way as the people who ride and train the entrants of the big races.
Horse racing is a complicated business in that sense. The owners are responsible for the purchase of horses and for deciding which trainers to send them to, but don’t tend to get the same degree of credit as jockeys and trainers. They’re an integral part of the process, with some even going so far as to having specific jockeys attached to them, but are a distant third in terms of importance in the racing world.
Given most owners don’t make money from racing it is worth celebrating those that have persevered and stand out as the best in Cheltenham history.
Whilst it doesn’t feel as sexy or interesting to talk about successful owners, it’s definitely the case that the best bettors will know all about them. Knowing which owners tend to work with which yards, which jockeys they’re friendly with and which horses they’re likely to put forward for the Festival as it approaches is a good way of giving yourself a useable edge over others, including the bookmakers.
Unlike in the articles that we’ve written about the Festival’s Top Trainers and Top Jockeys, it’s trickier to break down the wins of the owners over the years. In the case of J. P. McManus, he saw his first horse win at the meeting in 1982 when Mister Donovan brought him victory in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Instead of looking at their wins, second-place and third-place finishes, we’ll instead look at the best owners individually.
Where else to start but with J. P. McManus, the most successful owner in the history of the Cheltenham Festival at the time of writing? Having seen Mister Donovan win him the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in 1982, he enjoyed another winner when Bit Of A Skite was victorious in the National Hunt Chase the year after. At that point, McManus disappeared off the Cheltenham radar until 1991.
From the start of the 1990s onwards, however, he became something of an ever-present name on the Cheltenham Top Owners list. Horses like Istabraq, Baracouda, Synchronised and Buveur D’Air saw him winning some of the biggest races at the meeting. Born in Limerick, Ireland in 1951, he was originally a worker at a plant hire company before becoming an on-course bookmaker at a greyhound track.
His first trip to Cheltenham as an owner was in 1978, but it took another four years before he’d witness one of his horses get a win. Those that race for him do so in his famous gold and green colours, which he decided to use because they’re the colours of his local GAA Club, South Liberties. Once given the nickname ‘the Sundance Kid’, McManus witnessed his fair share of rain in the early stages of his career.
At one point or another, most of the very best trainers and jockeys have worked for McManus. Working with the best was a decision that has seen him rack up more than 70 wins at the Festival, setting him on the way to earning millions of pounds. In 2020, for example, seven of his horses won to see him crowned the Leading Owner, including a win for Epatante on his 69th birthday.
McManus is now getting on, born in 1951, but shows no signs of stopping. In early 2022 he reached 4000 wins in racing and aptly did it at the Cheltenham Trails Day.
A philanthropist at heart, even those that don’t know much about horse racing will almost certainly know of J.P. McManus. If the knowledge doesn’t come from the Festival horses that he’s seen in the Winners’ Enclosure over the years then it might well be because of the dispute he had with Alex Ferguson over Rock Of Gibraltar that some believe led to the Glazer Family owning Manchester United.
The disagreement in 2003 aside, McManus’ name was usually in the newspapers because of yet another one of his horses being successful on the track, with Cheltenham his preferred destination. Few owners can come close to McManus’ success over the years, which is why there’s no question that his name would not only be on this list but close to the top of it too.
The Johnson Family
If J. P. McManus is the owner for the modern day then the Johnson Family is very much a group of owners from the past. David Johnson, the family patriarch and the man to whom most of their success is owed, was one a bank clerk earning just £9 per hour. He went on to become a multi-millionaire in the finance sector, buying horses as a hobby.
He focussed his interest on jump racing and saw Comply Or Die win the 2008 Grand National at Aintree. Whilst that might well go down as his greatest single victory, he was named the National Hunt Owners Champion six times between 1998 and 2008, offering proof of the fact that he was more than just a flash in the pan when it came to his skill at buying horses.
His best season was the 2004-2005 one, during which he owned 111 winners when working with the trainer Martin Pipe and the jockey Timmy Murphy. Not a bad return for someone who actually began his career buying flat racing horses. Part of his success was undoubtedly down to the fact that he worked regularly with A. P. McCoy, the successful jump jockey.
As with any jump racing connoisseur, his true love was Cheltenham Racecourse. Our Vic won the Gold Cup for him in 2005, with another five of his horses winning the race in the years that followed. He died on the 6th of July 2013, with the Johnson Family having secured its place in Cheltenham folklore.
Gigginstown House Stud
One of the most famous names in horse racing ownership, Gigginstown House Stud is part of a wider organisation that is owned entirely by Michael O’Leary, the Chief Executive Officer of Ryanair. It operates under the title of Tillingdale and was originally Tillingdale Limited, having been founded at the turn of the millennium.
It started out as a company providing horse breeding services and furniture management under the Gigginstown House Stud moniker and in 2003 O’Leary Cabs was added to the company. This provided an excuse for O’Leary to use bus lanes in Dublin, which is something normally reserved for buses and taxis.
The taxi firm might be something of a joke, but O’Leary’s interest in horse racing most definitely isn’t. When your first win at the Cheltenham Festival as an owner comes thanks to your horse winning the Gold Cup, you’re always likely to have a good relationship with the meeting. That’s how it was for Gigginstown House Stud, who witnessed Conor O’Dwyer take War Of Attrition across the line first in the blue riband event back in 2006, cementing their place in history regardless of what happened next.
What happened next, though, was that Michael O’Leary’s horse company cemented its place as one of the most successful ownerships of the modern Cheltenham Festival era.
Indeed, a Gigginstown House Stud horse has won virtually every race there is to win during the Cheltenham Festival, including the likes of the Ryanair Chase, the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate and the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase. A Gigginstown horse won another Gold Cup in 2016 when Don Cossack was victorious in the event, though it’s actually a race away from Prestbury Park that helped them make history.
In 2018, Tiger Roll won the Grand National for the first time, having won the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham the month before. He won the Glenfarclas again the following year and then became the first horse since Red Rum to win the Grand National in successive years. It’s possible he’d have won back-to-back Nationals without victory in the Glenfarclas first, but that certainly gave him the confidence to run well at Aintree. In the end Tiger Roll ended up with 3 Cross Country wins but was not entered in the Grand National again, sadly.
In October of 2019, Michael O’Leary announced that he was to wind down his horse racing ownership, meaning that he’d soon have no horses at all running at Cheltenham. Having racked up 27 winners at the time of his announcement, he had ensured that his Gigginstown House Stud would go down in history regardless of whether he invested any more time in horse ownership.
Cheveley Park Stud
If Michael O’Leary and Gigginstown House Stud is now something of the past when it comes to ownership success at Cheltenham, Cheveley Park Stud is very much about the present. Having started out as a breeding operation for flat racing horses, Cheveley Park Stud made the transition to jump racing with remarkable ease. Based in Newmarket, it is the oldest stud in the area, having bred horses there for more than a thousand years.
Racing in red with a white sash and a blue cap, Cheveley Park Stud really gained some notoriety in National Hunt racing when their horse Party Politics won the Grand National in 1992. From there, their main plan was to invest heavily in young jump racing stock, ensuring that they had some horses on the books that boasted top-class potential in the world of jumping.
The plan looked like a good one almost immediately, with A Plus Tard winning the Close Brothers Handicap Chase and Envoi Allen winning the Champion Bumper both in 2019. Envoi Allen confirmed his place as one of the top jump racing horses around the year after when he won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival. Names like Bally Adam, Allaho and Quixilios will all be recognisable for those that watched the Festival in 2021.
Having owned horses in her own name since the 2007 to 2008 season, Susannah Ricci’s relationship with Willie Mullins ensured that she was always likely to have more than a few winners during the Cheltenham Festival. Mikael d’Haguenet proved as much when he won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in 2009, though the race had a different name at the time. If you’re a horse racing fan then you’ll recognise other Ricci horses, like Douvan, Faugheen and Vautour.
Between 2011 and 2021, Ricci has only had to endure one season without at least one Cheltenham Festival winner, which occurred in 2019. The year after Min won the Ryanair Chase to make a name for himself, with Monkfish doing the same thing in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Monkfish won the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase in 2021 to cement his place as a horse that has all of the ingredients to win the biggest races.
Such is the nature of Ricci’s relationship with Willie Mullins that she won 15 Festival races thanks to the trainer between 2009 and 2018, with only one of them not involving the work of Ruby Walsh in the saddle. Her crowning moment with the Festival came in 2021 when Minella Indo won the Gold Cup for her, under the training of Henry de Bromhead and with Jack Kennedy on the back.
The Stewart Family
There are a number of reasons why Andy Stewart and his family find themselves on this list, but one of the main ones has to be that they were the owners of Big Buck’s. Whilst it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the horse single-handedly put their name amongst the others here, but four consecutive wins in the World Hurdles certainly helped.
He was one of the best staying horses in the history of the sport, which is perhaps why so many are willing to overlook the errant apostrophe in his name. Andy Stewart had been a drop out when he began his career in the Square Mile as a broker, but that didn’t stop him making a success of himself, regularly featuring on the Rich List in the modern era.
His horses run in black, white and red colours, with the Cheltenham Festival being one of his favourite meetings. He sponsored the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in aid of Spinal Research, which became a subject close to his heart when his son broke his neck whilst skiing in 2008. It’s a sign of how closely tied his love of horses has been with the meeting.
His advancing years meant that other members of his family began to become more prominent in the horse owning side of affairs. The Stewart Family enjoyed its first Cheltenham Festival winner in 2008 when Celestial Halo won the Triumph Hurdle. The first, but definitely not the last, including successive victories in the Foxhunter Chase for Pacha Du Polder.
Mrs Diana L Whateley
When it comes to successful owners, few are as difficult to find information about as Mrs Diana L Whateley. We know that her horses run in navy and light blue, for example, and that her husband, Grahame, is the chairman of a number of public companies in the United Kingdom, but other than that she tends to stay out of the papers.
That means that she allows her horses to do the talking, such as during the Cheltenham Festival in 2011. Back then, her and Grahame returned from a week skiing in Val d’Isere just in time for the meeting. It was worth their while coming back and heading straight to Prestbury Park, considering they had eight runners over the four days.
That included Menorah, who was the favourite heading into that year’s Champion Hurdle. In the end he finished a disappointing fifth, failing to live up to the promise that he’d set when winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle the year before. He was a horse that finished his career in style, though, and is indicative of the sort of horses that the Whateley’s tend to buy.
Horses like Captain Chris and Wishfull Thinking have ran in the Whateley colours, representing the cause well over the years. Grahame Whateley made his money in property, so it’s somewhat appropriate that the couple have built such an impressive horse racing empire. They might not have won as many of the big races as other owners, but loads of smaller wins get them on this list.