In 2001, with the Cheltenham Festival blighted by foot-and-mouth disease, the Tote Gold Trophy Chase, billed only as ‘a substitute Gold Cup, of sorts’, was run at Sandown Park in late April. However, the race ‘lacked any strength in depth’, according to the Racing Post, and attracted just seven runners. First Gold, winner of the King George VI Chase at Kempton the previous December, was sent off favourite, at 8/13, with Marlborough, who was a decent handicapper, but a handicapper nonetheless, at 5/2 and 16/1 the front pair.
The complexion of the race changed significantly when First Gold blundered and unseated jockey Thierry Doumen at the tenth fence, leaving Go Ballistic, who had finished second, beaten just a length, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup ‘proper’ two seasons previously, to make the best of his way home. Belying odds of 33/1, Go Ballsitic took the lead on the railway straight and, although joined by Marlborough at the second last fence, battled on gamely in the closing stages. Nevertheless, Marlborough, who had looked held on the run-in, dug deep up the famous Sandown hill to snatch the spoils in the final stride, eventually winning by a short head.
For nearly eight decades, the record for the most consecutive wins at the Cheltenham Festival was held by the legendary Golden Miller, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup an unprecedented five years running between 1932 and 1936. However, in 2013, the French-bred mare Quevega, trained by Willie Mullins, won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle for the fifth successive year, thereby equalling the feat of Golden Miller. In 2014, as a 10-year-old, Quevega returned to the Cheltenham Festival to win the same race for the sixth consecutive year and take the record outright.
Originally acquired by Willie Mullins from France, as a 4-year-old, in 2008, Quevega was lightly raced throughout her career and, between 2010 and 2014 only ever contested the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and the World Series Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, which she also won four years running between 2010 and 2014. The daughter of Robin Des Champs started favourite for all six attempts at the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle and odds-on favourite for the last four. All in all, she won 16 of her 24 races and just over £536,000 in win and place prize money. Unsurprisingly, Quevega was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cheltenham Racecourse in 2016.
The jockey who holds the record for the highest number of Cheltenham Festival winners in a single year is Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh. Walsh retired from the saddle on May 1, 2019, just two weeks shy of his fortieth birthday but, by the end of his career, had ridden a total of 59 Cheltenham Festival winners and become leading jockey at the Festival on 11 occasions between 2004 and 2017. Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner on Alexander Banquet in the Champion Bumper, as an 18-year-old amateur, in 1998 but, as a professional, rode seven winners over the four days of the Festival not once, but twice.
His first record-breaking haul came in 2009, when his notable winners included Master Minded in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle, now the Stayers’ Hurdle, and Kauto Star in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, all for Paul Nicholls. Of course, Walsh and Nicholls parted company in 2013, with Walsh choosing to concentrate on riding for Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins. However, the end of one of the most successful partnerships in the history of National Hunt racing did Walsh little harm as far as the Cheltenham Festival was concerned. Indeed, in 2016, Walsh equalled his own record by riding seven winners, all trained by Mullins, at the Festival. Notable winners that year included Douvan in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle and the ill-fated Vautour in the Ryanair Chase.
For the uninitiated, Arkle was arguably the greatest steeplechaser of all time. In a four-year period between 1962 and 1966, Arkle won 22 of his 26 races over fences – including the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years running in 1964, 1965 and 1966 – and finished behind just six horses. His Timeform Annual Rating, of 212, is the highest ever awarded to a steeplechaser and 20lb superior to any other steeplechaser in history, with the exception of his stable companion, Flyingbolt. Arkle was owned by Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster, and trained by Thomas William ‘Tom’ Dreaper at the family farm in Greenogue, Kilsallaghan, Co. Dublin, Ireland.