Cheltenham Festival has witnessed many great races and legendary competitors during its time. Icons of jumps racing have made their names over the course of the week, earning the ultimate prizes in the National Hunt.
However, some horses have proven to be a class apart. They took the sport to new heights with the standard of their victories at Cheltenham Festival and beyond. We’ll now look at five of the finest competitors to grace the racecourse in the 159 years of the Festival.
Arkle is arguably the greatest jumps horse of all-time. Tom Dreaper’s charge dominated the sport in the 1960s, using his pace and stamina to collect almost every honour available at distances ranging from 1m 6f up to 3m 5f. The bay gelding’s ability to move seamlessly through distances without struggling made his run all the more impressive. Arkle won 27 of his 35 races, and always seemed to rise to the occasion at Cheltenham Festival. His first triumph in the Gold Cup came in 1964 when he was rated as a slight outsider for the crown. Mill House, who won the event the previous year, was the odds-on favourite, but he was beaten by five lengths by Dreaper’s charge.
Arkle was even better in the 1965 Gold Cup. This time his status was not disputed as the bookies backed him as a 30/100 favourite. Arkle did not disappoint with a brilliant performance, blowing away his competition to claim the cup by 20 lengths. At the age of nine, he did not slow down and he joined an elite company of horses with his third win on the bounce in the Gold Cup. His margin was even more emphatic, cantering over the line and into the winners’ enclosure while the rest of the field was finishing the race such was the brilliance of his triumph by 30 lengths. Arkle was prevented from adding further crowns due to injury, although his impact at the Festival was noted, so much so that he has a race named after him.
Golden Miller is the most successful horse in the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. No competitor has enjoyed a run better than the one that Basil Briscoe enjoyed during the 1930s. It’s difficult to judge his performances by modern standards, although no one can argue with his record in the Gold Cup, winning five races on the bounce. No horse has come close since, while he remains the only horse to have won the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same season. He achieved the feat in 1934, putting forward brilliant performances at both events. Briscoe’s charge made his bow at the Cup in 1932 as a 13/2 outsider for the crown. He rose to the occasion to defeat the rest of the field by five lengths.
On his return to Cheltenham Festival, Golden Miller was named the favourite and he produced an emphatic display to see off the challenge of Thomond II by 10 lengths. It was the same story in 1934 where he comfortable edged out Avenger. Thomond II came back for a second round in 1935 and the race was the closest of Golden Miller’s triumphs. He just had the pace down the stretch to see out the win by three-quarters of a length. The bay gelding signed off at the Gold Cup with his best performance to secure an unprecedented fifth crown in 1936, running clear to finish 12 lengths ahead of his nearest rival. He too has an event named after him now, highlighting his impact.
Best Mate is one of the modern day greats of the sport, bringing back the days of dominance that appeared to have ended in the 1970s. He became the first horse since L’Escaragot to have won the Gold Cup on multiple occasions when he claimed his second crown in 2003, ending a 32-year run of new champions. He joined the class of Golden Miller, Arkle and Cottage Rake when he won the third of his titles in 2004. Henrietta Knight’s charge made his first appearance in the Gold Cup as a 7/1 outsider for the crown as 2000 champion Looks Like Trouble was the leading contender.
However, the seven-year-old took the title, finishing one-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of Commanche Court. Best Mate returned to Cheltenham Festival in 2003 as the overwhelming favourite for the crown and he put down a dominant outing to claim the Gold Cup by 10 lengths as no one could muster a challenge. The win that confirmed his status as an all-time great was a trickier test as Sir Rembrandt applied the pressure late in the meet, but he held out to secure the win by half-a-length. Best Mate sadly died the following year from a heart attack at the age of 10, although his presence is remembered with an enclosure at Cheltenham Racecourse.
Kauto Star was close to joining Best Mate as one of the horses that claimed the Gold Cup three times in a row, only to be denied by his stable-mate Denman. Paul Nicholls’ charge won 23 of his 41 races during his career, establishing a rating from Timeform that placed him just below the range of 200 where only two horses have occupied. Kauto Star enjoyed the most of his success at Kempton Park in the King George VI Chase where he won five crowns, including four in a row. However, he still rose to the occasion at Cheltenham Festival in 2007 and 2009 to etch his place in history.
He made his first appearance at the Gold Cup in 2007 where he was named the favourite for the event. Nicholls’ charge duly delivered with a triumph by two-and-a-half lengths. Denman prevented his stable-mate from repeating in 2008, laying down a fine display to win the event by seven lengths ahead of Kauto Star. The bay gelding and Ruby Walsh got their revenge in 2009, besting his contemporary with an even stronger display to take the crown, finishing 13 lengths ahead of Denman.
Nicky Henderson’s charge had an incredible amount of talent, although injuries prevented him from attaining the ultimate prize at Cheltenham Festival. He raced 24 times over the course of his career and recorded 18 victories, including three crowns at the Festival. Sprinter Sacre made his breakthrough in 2012 when he claimed the Arkle Chase crown, defeating a quality field, which included Cue Card, by a comfortable margin. Henderson moved his charge forward in 2013 for the Champion Chase.
He was once again able to dominate the rest of the field, finishing 19 lengths ahead of his nearest rival Sizing Europe. Sprinter Sacre had won 10 races on the bounce, but at the Desert Orchid Chase at the end of 2013 he suffered an injury that would halt his career. He did not return to the track until 2015 where he sustained another problem, pulling up at the Champion Chase. The bay gelding managed to return for one final run at Cheltenham in the Champion Chase and he bowed on a high note at the Festival with his second crown, defeating Un De Sceaux.