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.
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.
Undoubtedly the greatest National Hunt jockey in history, Sir Anthony McCoy, a.k.a. Tony McCoy, requires little introduction. Born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1974, McCoy was Champion Conditional Jockey in 1995/96 and, thereafter, Champion Jockey every year for two decades until his retirement in April, 2015. All told, McCoy rode a record 4,348 winners over obstacles, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that he stands 5’10” tall and, throughout his career, required a punishing regime to maintain his weight at around 10st 3lb. In 2016, McCoy was knighted for services to horse racing, making him just the second jockey in history, after Sir Gordon Richards in 1953, to be awarded a knighthood.
Indeed, in 2001/02, en route to his seventh Jump Jockeys’ Championship, McCoy rode 289 winners, thereby breaking the British record for the most winners in a single season, 269, set by Sir Gordon Richards in 1947. In August 2002, McCoy also succeeded Richard Dunwoody as the most prolific jockey in British National Hunt history, when Mighty Montefalco, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, landed odds of 8/13 at Uttoxeter to bring up winner number 1,700. After winning the Jump Jockeys’ Championship again in 2002/03, with 258 winners McCoy set his sights on riding 300 winners in 2003/04; he suffered a major setback when breaking his arm in a fall at Worcester in June, with just 36 winners on the board, but still managed 209 winners in the season as a whole.
In National Hunt racing, over hurdles or fences, ‘seeing a stride’ refers to the ability of a jockey not only to identify the point at which, ideally, a horse should leave the ground to negotiate an obstacle successfully, but also to ride positively to reach that point. To position a horse optimally – that is, close to the base of an obstacle, but not so close as to impair take-off – a jockey must consider the characteristics of the horse, in terms of balance, suppleness and temperament and, of course, its stride length, as well as the nature of the obstacle. Of course, the different types of obstacles include hurdles, plain fences and open ditches; the tallest and broadest fence on the Grand National Course at Aintree, known as ‘The Chair’, is 5’3″ high and 9′ wide, including a 6′ wide ditch on the take-off side. A horse typically has a stride length between 9′ and 12′, so will cover at least that distance in the air and possibly further, if the obstacle is wider. Nevertheless, while momentum is required to jump larger obstacles, a jockey must avoid ‘kicking on’ too hard, which can lead to jumping errors, loss of confidence and injury to horse and rider.