Martin Pipe, who officially retired, due to poor health, in April, 2006, was a revolutionary, often controversial, trainer, who dominated British National Hunt racing from the late Eighties until the early Noughties. In fact, Pipe won the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship 15 times in all between 1988/89 and 2004/05, including ten seasons in a row between 1995/96 and 2004/05; indeed, he relinquished his reign as Champion trainer only briefly, to the late David Nicholson, in 1993/94 and 1994/95.
Based at Pond House, Nicholashayne, on the Devon-Somerset border, Pipe trained his first winner, Hit Parade, at Taunton in 1975 but, in his 30-year career, would amass a total of 4,180 winners, more than any other National Hunt trainer in history. He saddled 34 winners at the Cheltenham Festival including Granville Again and Make A Stand in the Champion Hurdle, in 1993 and 1997, respectively, and won the Grand National with Miinnehoma im 1994. Indeed, he trained over 200 winners in a season, including a then record 243 in 1999/2000, on eight occasions.
Pipe is credited with introducing training innovations such as blood tests, meticulous record-keeping, which allowed him to chronicle his horses’ health and interval training, all of which are commonplace in the modern training regime. His approach allowed him to boost the fitness of his horses more than any other trainer and he achieved much of his success with cheaply-bought ‘castoffs’ from other stables, which he often improved out of all recognition.
Of the main ‘championship’ races run at the Cheltenham Festival, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was established in 1924, three years before the Champion Hurdle, is the oldest. However, the oldest race still run at the Cheltenham Festival is the Grand Annual Chase; since 2005, has borne the name of John ‘Johnny’ Henderson, late father of trainer Nicky Henderson, who, as founder of Racecourse Holdings Trust, is credited with securing the future of Cheltenham Racecourse in the Sixties.
Nowadays, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase is a prestigious Grade 3 handicap steeplechase, run over 2 miles and 62 yards on the New Course at Prestbury Park and open to horses aged five years and upwards. The Grand Annual Chase has been a fixture of the Cheltenham Festival since 1913, but the inaugural running actually took place nearly seven decades earlier, ‘in the neighbourhood of Andoversford’, which lies approximately six miles east of Cheltenham, in 1834. The initial contest was an eventful affair, eventually won by Fugleman, owned and ridden by Mr. R. D’Oyley. The Grand Annual Chase was discontinued in the latter part of the nineteenth century and, in the early twentieth century, staged at various other venues before returning, permanently, to Cheltenham.
Willie Mullins, who has won the Irish National Hunt Trainers’ Championship every season since 2008/09, has also been no stranger to the winners’ enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years. Indeed, the County Carlow handler is the most successful trainer in the history of the March showpiece meeting, with 72 winners, and has been crowned leading trainer seven times.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is a notable omission from Mullins’ CV but, of the other three main ‘championship’ races, he has won the Champion Hurdle four times, the Stayers’ Hurdle twice and, after finishing runner-up six times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, courtesy of Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020. Everyone needs to start somewhere, of course, and in Willie Mulllins’ case his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival was Tourist Attraction in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1995. Ridden by Mark Dwyer, the 25/1 chance led on the run-in and stayed on well to beat Ventana Canyon, trained by Edward O’Grady and ridden by Charlie Swan, by two lengths.
County Kildare-born Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh, who retired from race riding on May 1, 2019, just two weeks shy of his fortieth birthday, was one of the greatest National Hunt jockeys of all time. All told, in his 24-year riding career, Walsh rode 2,756 winners in Britain and Ireland, include a record 59 at the Cheltenham Festival, where he won the leading jockey award no fewer than 11 times.
Indeed, Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet, trained by Willie Mullins, in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, as an 18-year-old amatuer, in 1998. Having turned professional later that year, Walsh went on to enjoy a remarkable career during which he would win each of the main ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival at least twice. Indeed, he won the Stayers’ Hurdle five times, the Champion Hurdle four times, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times and the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice. His last Cheltenham Festival winner came courtesy of Klassical Dream, again trained by Willie Mullins, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2019.