It is 90 years since Golden Miller won the first of a record-breaking five victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Jack Watkins looks back at other equine heroes of the race and assesses the Irish raider Al Boum Photo’s chances of making history at this year’s Festival.
Who is the greatest Cheltenham Gold Cup winner of all time? When the flag goes up for the 94th running of Britain’s most prestigious steeplechase next Friday, March 18, the Irish-trained Al Boum Photo will be bidding for a third victory in four years. If he succeeds, it will put him in the rarefied company of legendary horses Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate. However, unlike these multiple winners, he will not have won it in consecutive years and he may be somewhat grudgingly accepted into the pantheon by racing traditionalists.
The Gold Cup is a tough race, invariably run at an unrelentingly strong pace over a stiff and undulating three miles, two furlongs with 22 fences that take no prisoners and an uphill climb of half a mile to the finishing post. It’s arduous enough for many a contestant’s form to drop off subsequently.
It is a mighty feat, therefore, for Al Boum Photo’s trainer Willie Mullins to get a fragile racehorse back for the race for a fourth time (he was third last year). Yet, in an era when the leading jumps trainers tend to restrict the number of races their best horses run in, Al Boum Photo has been even more lightly campaigned than most.
If he wins, he and his connections will deserve all the plaudits they get, not least because older horses seldom triumph (the last 10 year old to win was Cool Dawn in 1998). However, it must be said that it is hard for racegoers to take a horse to their hearts when they see it so rarely.
It is futile to compare horses of different generations, but, given that dual winners are few enough, it’s unlikely that any will ever match the heroic achievements of Golden Miller. This year is the 90th anniversary of the first of his five Gold Cup triumphs; it came in the eighth running of a race that had been inaugurated as a level-weights steeplechase in 1924.
The Irish-bred Golden Miller was only five at the time of his first victory, in 1932. He might well have added a sixth success, had the 1937 meeting not been abandoned in a snowstorm—in 1938, aged 11, on his final racecourse appearance, he finished two lengths second to Morse Code, cheered all the way by an emotional crowd. He also won the Grand National under top weight in 1934, the only horse to achieve the double in the same season.
Remarkably Golden Miller’s Gold Cup victories were achieved with four different jockeys (Ted Leader, Billy Stott and Gerry Wilson for 1934 and 1935) and two different trainers, Basil Briscoe and Owen Anthony. His owner was the volatile, heavy-gambling Dorothy Paget, herself a legend in the sport, although perhaps not with some of the trainers she crossed.
The first dual Gold Cup winner was Easter Hero, in 1929 and 1930, but then the race was still seen as an inferior prize to the Grand National. It was Golden Miller, whose statue now overlooks the track, and his eccentric owner who established it as jump racing’s blue riband.
Between Golden Miller and the Arkle phenomenon of the 1960s, the brilliant Cottage Rake, three times a winner (1948–1950) under the stylish Aubrey Brabazon, is often overlooked. Not only was he the first horse to travel by air to the Festival, he was the first Irish-bred, owned and trained winner. His handler was Co Tipperary’s Vincent O’Brien, better known for his staggering record on the Flat, but who also trained four Gold Cup winners.
By the time the mighty Arkle kicked off his winning run, Ireland’s famous love affair with the Festival was in full swing and television coverage was enhancing the horse’s celebrity status—he was known as ‘Himself’, his fan mail was addressed: ‘Arkle, Ireland’ (he was trained by Tom Dreaper at Greenogue, Co Dublin) and he was immortalised in a Philip Larkin poem. The horse’s third and final Gold Cup victory, in 1966, was achieved by a winning margin of 30 lengths and his Timeform rating of 212 remains the highest ever allocated to a steeplechaser.
It’s a reflection of the increasingly competitive nature of racing that, between 1966 and 2002, only one horse won more than once: L’Escargot, another Irish horse, trained by Dan Moore, triumphed in 1970 and 1971 and won the 1975 Grand National, beating Red Rum. These years, nevertheless, saw many great winners, for legendary connections.
In 1973, The Dikler, who ran in the Gold Cup for seven consecutive years, gave Lambourn-based Fulke Walwyn, for many years the Festival’s leading trainer with 40 winners between 1946 and 1986, the last of his four wins. The others were Mont Tremblant, for Paget, Mandarin and Mill House.
The giant Mill House’s jockey, Fred Winter, was the only man to win the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle as a jockey and as a trainer. Surprisingly, however, despite his dominance in the 1970s, his only Gold Cup training win was in 1978, when the brilliant seven-year-old Midnight Court skipped round under the superb horseman John Francome when the race was postponed to April due to snow.
It wasn’t until 1956 that a northern yard claimed the Gold Cup, with Limber Hill, trained by Bill Dutton in Yorkshire and ridden by Jimmy Power. The most recent northern winner was the Peter Beaumont-trained Jodami in 1993, following victories by Peter Easterby (twice), Jimmy Fitzgerald and Arthur Stephenson. In 1983, Michael Dickinson, based at Harewood in North Yorkshire, made history by saddling the first five home in the 1983 edition (led by Bregawn and Graham Bradley).
The athletic Best Mate interrupted the trend for once-only winners with his three consecutive victories in 2002–04. His trainer, Henrietta Knight, pioneered the light campaigning approach so favoured today and was famously nervous, only emerging into public areas when victory was safely assured. Best Mate might even have notched a fourth success in 2005 had not a broken blood vessel ruled him out a week before the race.
The white-faced Kauto Star is the only horse to have regained the crown having lost it the year before. His two wins in 2007 and 2009 came either side of a defeat by stablemate Denman in 2008. The Paul Nicholls-trained pair were two of the greatest horses of the modern era. Denman was a big, powerful throwback to the days of Mill House and Arkle, but the lighter-framed Kauto Star won hearts for his persistence and versatility. He won the King George VI five times round the much tighter Kempton Park track and had the pace to twice win the two-mile Tingle Creek at Sandown.
Nicky Henderson, who passed Fulke Walwyn’s record in 2012, has won the Gold Cup twice, with Long Run in 2011 (his rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, was the first winning amateur jockey in 30 years) and Bobs Worth in 2013.
Remarkably, Mr Mullins, the supreme trainer on either side of the Irish Sea—he has now passed Mr Henderson’s record as the Festival’s leading trainer—had to wait 21 years until Al Boum Photo gave him his first win in the race, in 2019. It seems inconceivable there will not be more, if not with Al Boum Photo, then perhaps with his recent King George VI Chase winner Tornado Flyer.
However, a victory for Al Boum Photo won’t make the only great story. Romantics would also love a first win for the up-and-coming Dan Skelton stable (Protektorat, ridden by Dan’s brother, Harry), an overdue success for the great Venetia Williams (Royal Pagaille) or a Lucinda Russell win for Scotland (Ahoy Senor).
Did you know?
Pat Taaffe is the most successful Gold Cup jockey, riding four winners (three on Arkle, plus Fort Leney in 1968)
Tom Dreaper is the top trainer, with five victories. His hat-trick of wins with Arkle followed his first success with the odds-on favourite Prince Regent in 1946. He also won with Fort Leney
Dreaper’s son, Jim, saddled Ten Up to win in 1975, jockey Tommy Carberry wearing the famous Arkle colours of Anne, Duchess of Westminster
What A Myth, trained by Ryan Price, is the oldest equine winner, aged 12 in 1969
In 1974, Captain Christy, trained by Pat Taaffe, was the first novice to win since Mont Tremblant in 1952. The latest novice winner was Coneygree, making all the running under Nico de Boinville to win for the tiny Wantage, Oxfordshire, stable of Mark Bradstock in 2015
The gallant mare Dawn Run, trained by Willie Mullins’s father, Paddy, was the first horse to complete the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double after her respective wins in 1984 and 1986
Jenny Pitman was the first woman to train the winner, with Burrough Hill Lad in 1984, followed by Garrison Savannah, ridden by her son, Mark, in 1991
The Gold Cup went to France in 1994, to The Fellow, trained by François Doumen
The biggest-priced winner is Norton’s Coin (at 100–1) in 1990, for Welsh owner-trainer/dairy farmer Sirrell Griffiths
The Cheltenham Festival runs from March 15–18. Tickets for Gold Cup day (Friday) have sold out (www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/cheltenham)
BBC's Panorama painted a grim picture of the fate of failed racehorses, but it doesn't always end badly as Annunciata
Jack Watkins talks to the champion racehorse trainer on quality over quantity and preserving Newmarket.