As far as the ‘Timeform era’ is concerned, it is important to note that Timeform ratings – which express, in Imperial pounds, the calibre, or merit, of each horse – were not published for National Hunt racing until the early Sixties. Consequently, the Timeform era does not include luminaries of the post-war years, such as National Spirit, Hatton’s Grace and Sir Ken, who collectively won the Champion Hurdle eight times between 1947 and 1954.
However, as Japanese writer Haruki Marukmai once said, ‘Everybody has to start somewhere’ and, as it stands, Night Nurse, who recorded back-to-back victories in the Champion Hurdle in 1976 and 1977, is the highest-rated hurdler of the Timeform era, with a Timeform Annual Rating of 182. Indeed, the 1977 renewal of the Champion Hurdle is often acclaimed as the best ever run and Monksfield, who finished second on that occasion before winning in 1978 and 1979, is the joint-second highest-rated hurdler of the Timeform era. His Timeform Annual Rating, of 180, places him alongside Istabraq, who won the Champion Hurdle three years running, in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
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.
To avoid any confusion, the first female jockey to ride a winner against professional jockeys at the Cheltenham Festival was Gee Armytage, who partnered The Ellier, trained by Nigel Tinkler, to victory in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup – in the days before the name of Fulke Walwyn was added to the race title – in 1987. Indeed, that same year, the 21-year-old Armytage also won the Mildmayof Flete Challenge Cup – now the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate – on Gee-A, trained by Geoff Hubbard; she actually came agonisngly close to winning the leading jockey award, eventually losing out on countback to reigning champion jockey Peter Scudamore by virtue of having ridden fewer second- and third-placed horses. However, the first female jockey to ride a winner, of any description, at the Cheltenham Festival was amateur rider Caroline Robinson (née Beasley) who rode her own horse, Eliogarty, to win the Christie’s Foxhunter Chase – now the St. James’s Place Foxhunter Chase – in 1983.
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.