No sport has a climax as complete as the Cheltenham Festival gives to jump racing. No role is as fulfilled as a training victory at the meeting. For what seems every living hour and day and week and month and even years a trainer has tried to shape a horse’s destiny for this very moment. With a great trainer it is a triumph of discipline, timing, judgement and above all insight into the physique and psyche of the horse in his care. There have been many famous figures and my choice of top ten will give me serious problems in the afterlife when I have to explain to such fiery legends as Fred Rimell and Ryan Price (for both of whom I rode) how their victories in Champion Hurdles and Gold Cups didn’t make the cut.
But these ten were also all extraordinary and distinctive people whose stables I visited and whose feats I revered. So – in strictly chronological order – here is the choice.
23 winners from 1948 -59
He will always be incomparable. I only got to visit him later, only got to see Knock Hard, the last of his 4 Gold Cup winners on a flickering early TV screen, but what he achieved at Cheltenham between 1948 and 1959 is almost impossible to figure even now.
23 individual winners at the Festival, three consecutive victories in the Gold Cup with Cottage Rake between 1948 and 1950 with Cottage Rake overlapped by three Champion Hurdles in a row from Hattons Grace not to mention that from 1953-5 Vincent also won the Grand National each year with Early Mist, Royal Tan, and Quare Times.
All that when it was indeed a long way to Tipperary where Vincent trained at Ballydoyle . Even on those early flickering screens there was a sense that this was a man beyond the ordinary limits of his place and time – a sense that late flat race renown only heightened. To the wider world Vincent O’Brien is the man who ruled at Epsom, Ascot and Longchamp but in his heart the first and greatest target was Cheltenham. Without it, the legend would not have begun.
26 winners from 1946 -71
Tom Dreaper was a quieter legend but an immortal all the same and not only because he took Arkle to heights of fame no other horse will ever reach. In the summer of 1961 I spent a golden month riding out from the Dreaper yard at Kilsallaghan in County Meath. It was two years before Arkle first took Cheltenham apart but by then Tom Dreaper had already logged up 8 of his 26 Festival winners starting with Prince Regent’s Gold Cup way back in 1946. No month ever left a deeper impression.
For virtually every horse was a potential Arkle – big raw-boned chasers who majored in rustic honesty rather than flat race flashiness. Only one of the Dreaper Cheltenham winners was over hurdles and that, Flyingbolt’s Gloucester Hurdle, was with a horse who was to become the only chaser of his era who could be mentioned in the same breath as his Olympian stablemate.
If Vincent O’Brien was all about innovation, Tom Dreaper’s system was based on timeless, pipe smoking, rural understanding. We used to ride out of the redbrick Edwardian farmyard , cross the bridge over the stream and within minutes would be being towed at breakneck pace round a circuit only made possible by making a passageway through the hedges. It was simple but not haphazard. For all Tom Dreaper’s warm, pipe smoking calm, he knew every foible of his horses. At root training an athlete to hit a peak depends on judgement calls. Cheltenham was where he loved to call it right.
40 winners from 1946-86
Fulke Walwyn always had something physical about his aura. He had been a Grand National winning jockey before a skull fracture ended his riding days and he had an astonishing appetite for life. Especially for Cheltenham – forty winners over 40 years at what was then a mere 20 race Festival is a record never to be matched.
His face had the lined and leatherbeaten charm of someone who could burn the midnight oil but would turn out like a brooding lion in the early morning. Up on the gallops at Lambourn, or anywhere else for that matter, he did not take fool lightly. But why should he when he was putting so much belief and energy on the line trying to craft another Cheltenham winner?
He did different jobs with different horses. Winning the Gold Cup with the brilliant bold 6 year old Mont Tremblant (my first Gold Cup memory) in 1952, with the little, fragile legged and one time flawed jumper Mandarin in 1962 at the age of 12, with another 6 year old, the massive Mill House who won so magnificently in 1963 and finally by the cranky and even larger The Dikler in 1973. To Fulke the search was to find the key – those statistics didn’t lie.
13 winners from 1967 -86.
No man, not even the apparently imperturbable Tom Dreaper, made less fuss about training than Peter Easterby. Before Sea Pigeon’s 1981 Champion Hurdle, John Francome came into the paddock expecting at the very least some specific instructions as to how late to delay his challenge on the brilliant but quixotic performer. “Hi John,” said Easterby, “you know how to ride ‘im”
Such magnificent sang froid stung Francome into one of the most daring waiting races ever seen. It was typical Peter Easterby. He had thought things through, matched his horse up with the right race and rider and let fate roll the dice in his favour. It was a deal. Even when he built up a whole empire of horses and half a county of land, Peter Easterby remained a dealer at heart.
It meant he would find a job for horses of all shapes and sizes just as he did with the first yearlings he bought on spec and sold at a profit for cattle. It meant he was as happy to saddle the 6 year old colt Saucy Kit to win the Champion Hurdle as he was the former Derby runner Sea Pigeon or the big plain faced Night Nurse who took it twice under policeman style Paddy Broderick or even the blue blooded flat reject Alverton to land a gamble in the Gold Cup. I asked him his secret once. “Common Sense,” was the reply
28 winners from 1970 -88
Fred Winter was about will power. He had not wanted to be a jump jockey and was anxious to avoid being a trainer. But once trapped he had to be a winner and Cheltenham he would make his own – the only man to both ride and train the winners of the Gold Cup and of The Champion Hurdle.
As a rider he was a small, almost squat presence hunched in powerfully behind the mane. As a trainer he cut a short but very composed figure as he greeted owners and jockeys in the ring. In the paddock Fred never shouted, never rushed. You were aware you were with someone special and, in a pleasant but firm manner, he was aware of it as well
He inspired men – and horses too. Even Paul Nicholls present day stable of treasures could not match that list of Fred Winter heroes in the early 70’s – Bula, Pendil, Crisp, Killiney and Lanzarote – Cheltenham winners all. Not for nothing did they call their wing of the winter yard “Millionaires Row”. When John Francome won the Gold Cup for him on Midnight Court in 1978 some tried to claim the victory was not authentic as the race was run in April after the March date was postponed. Fred Winter was 24 carat all the way through.
17 from 1986 – 99
Cheltenham meant more to David Nicholson than anyone else. He had been brought up next to the course, ridden on it since a teenager but when he turned to training, winners at The Festival stubbornly refused to come. When they did the world new about it.
Like his father “Frenchy” Nicholson, there was something almost child-like if not childish in his belief that to stand in the winners’ circle at Cheltenham was the highest accolade that the good lord could bestow. Perhaps to start with the belief was too strong that he and his sheepskin coat were predestined for glory. It took twenty years before Solar Cloud broke through in the Triumph Hurdle only for Charter Party to double the score the same day in the National Hunt Handicap Chase and to crown things for his trainer by winning The Gold Cup itself two years later.
David had adapted and for the next ten years was the biggest figure of them all, even wresting the trainers championship off the phenomenal Martin Pipe in 1994 and 1995, the two years co-incidentally when Viking Flagship won the Champion Chase in races as epic as any in the game. David liked that. He always thought Cheltenham should be epic and – of course – that he should star there !
10 winners from 1982-84
Michael Dickinson was a meteorite. Although he had always been part of the highly successful Dickinson family stable, he only took the licence himself between 1980 and 1984, had his first Cheltenham winner in 1982 and his last in 1984. Mind you that did include the 1983 and 84 Champion Chases with Badsworth Boy, the 1982 Gold Cup with Silver Buck, and of course the 1983 Gold Cup with Bregawn at the head of a Dickinson clean sweep.
No one can call themselves a true Cheltenham fan unless they can recite the mantra : Bregawn, Captain John , Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House – the finishing order of Dickinson’s unique first five home in that Gold Cup of 1983. It was the most astonishing training performance in Festival history and it didn’t happen as a fluke.
For Michael had taken training to a new height. He had been a restless creature at the best of times but when his parents finally stood back to let him lead the whole show he had developed a training method which brought a level of fitness that rivals – and media men – at first recognize. Before that 1983 Gold Cup, Ted Walsh and I stood in the paddock and agreed that the five Dickinson horses all looked so lean and wiry that Michael must have overdone it. Within the hour, history had given us the answer.
34 from 1981 -2005
The 80s and 90s were exciting times for jump racing and much of the excitement came for the sharp, limping and slightly suspicious figure of Martin Pipe. Martin did not understand or trust the old order. He wanted to make it his own. Others did not like it.
When he won his first Cheltenham race, with the 66-1 shot Baron Blakeney in 1981 in The Triumph Hurdle, the racing world dismissed it as an accident. But as he began to tear up both the record books and bookmaker’s satchels with horses interval trained even leaner and harder than Dickinson, the old guard circulated every discrediting rumour in the bag. Their only hope was for a few years Cheltenham was winner free – then from 1989 came the flood.
But Martin often found himself in the eye of the storm, and the deaths of the brilliant Gloria Victis in the Gold Cup and Kadimix (?) in the Champion Hurdle hit him and jockey Tony McCoy as hard as anything in their careers. But it for their winners we should remember them, for the Champion Hurdles of Granville Again and Make A Stand and for the trained to the minute coups that were Blowing Wind and Unsinkable Boxer. I don’t remember many opening lines or articles I have written – but I recall what I wrote after I had been down to see Martin’s stable in 1985 – it was “When will the losers learn?”
34 from 1985 -2009
Nicky Henderson is the grandee who found his metier. When you hear him, glass in hand, expanding about life and laughter, it would be easy to picture him as a fat cat who’s had the cream from boyhood. But the truth is that he is a worker – and a worrier.
Privileged all right – his father became a brilliantly successful banker after being General Montgomery’s wartime ADC. But obsessed by racing and by winning at it. As an amateur jockey he won the Liverpool Foxhunters with a slipping saddle – as a young trainer he saddled the foul-tempered See You Then to win the Champion Hurdle three years running 1985/6/7 and signed in with two others winners on that first year as well. It was a great start – but with his background and ten successful training years behind him it could almost have been expected.
What has been a revelation is the way that the Cheltenham challenge seems only to have sharpened Henderson passion for the festival not blunted. It is not by chance that he has trained more Festival winners than any other current trainer. No one more specifically targets his horses for those 4 days in March, no one get more hyper as the showdown approaches. And with another Champion Hurdle with Punjabi last year, no one should doubt that the Henderson operation is now rolling better than ever.
25 from 1999 to 2009
Paul Nicholls is a driven man with a simple aim. He wants to do better than all that have gone before. At the present rate you would not want to bet too heavy against him.
For twenty years into is training career he has adapted what others have done to produce a conditioning system unmatched in the history of the game. He is beginning to combine the energy of Martin Pipe with the clear sightedness of Vincent O’Brien and harness to them the backing of today’s millionaires. Rivals might mutter that horses like Kauto Star were bought for money beyond ordinary mortals reach, but none of them now doubt that they get to Cheltenham.
They used to. So did Paul and it took him 8 years of training to discover why. “I tended to squeeze the lemon dry beforehand by winning all I could along the way.” By 1999 he had learned the lesson and how –Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle, Call Equiname in the Champion Chase before See More Business in the Gold Cup itself.
The facts since then speak for themselves and what Nicholls has done in the Gold Cup is beginning to put even Michael Dickinson to shame. He was won it the last three years, in 2008 he saddled the first three home and last year bettered even that with four of the first five. The restlessness in Michael Dickinson took him off to flat racing but the motor in Nicholls only drives him on within his own game. Training is about athletic fulfilment – Paul Nicholls is taking it to a newer peak.