The Five Greatest Irish Winners at the Cheltenham Festival
British horses may dominate the role of honour at the home of jumps racing, but Irish entrants have more than held their own when they make the voyage over the Irish Sea. Irish raiders have been turning up at the gates of Prestbury Park – accompanied by a massive following of supporters who have also made the trip to Cheltenham – for over a century, with many of them taking some of sports most historic prizes back to Ireland when the Festival comes to a close.
Here are the five best and most successful Irish bred and Irish trained horses ever set foot on the hallowed turf at the Cheltenham Festival.
Henrietta Knight may be a name many of you won’t recognise – she retired in 2012 and her yard was passed into the hands of Mick Channon – but during the early 2000s, Best Mate’s heroics put her stable on the map. He never finished outside the top two in any of his 21 outings and his jumping was so beautifully sound, he never even threatened to fall at an obstacle. With Jim Culloty on-board, Best Mate won the Gold Cup three years in a row between 2002 and 2004 – the first horse since another infamous Irish champion to achieve the monumental feat.
His last outing on the track came at the 2005 Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. He wasn’t travelling at his fluently brilliant best and fearing something was wrong, Paul Carberry pulled him up before the third last. Upon stopping, Best Mate collapsed to his knees and suffered a suspected heart attack. The capacity crowd were left stunned and tearful, as they witnessed the passing of a true legend of the sport. Two years after his death, a bronze statue of Best Mate was unveiled on the Prestbury Park grounds, ensuring is Cheltenham heroics would never be forgotten.
While under the care of John Godsden, Istabraq had proven himself to be a handy horse on the flat. In 1996, he was purchased by John Durkan and pushed into the world of jumps racing. And as they say, the rest is history.
Over the next four years, Istabraq was close to being untouchable – losing only three of his 24 outings over hurdles and winning every major hurdling prize on offer. With faithful pilot Charlie Swan in the saddle, he won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three times on the trot in the late 90s, as well as the Royal & Sun Alliance (now the Neptune) Novices’ Hurdle in the year preceding that hat-trick of Champion Hurdle crowns. His battling qualities and lighting speed made him a fans favourite at Prestbury Park and Istabraq is likely to go down as one of the best two-mile hurdlers the sport has ever seen. He is one of the reasons that so many people purchased Cheltenham Festival tickets when he was at the top of his game.
I don’t think there has ever been a celebration of such magnitude at the Cheltenham Festival, as there was when Dawn Run won the Gold Cup in 1986. There was unbridled pandemonium in the stands. Spectators spilled out onto the track and invaded the winner’s enclosure, as the Irish faithful celebrated the victory as one.
Not only was Paddy Mullins’ mare only the second female to ever win jump racing’s biggest prize, but she had also become the first horse ever to record the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle double – after she had claimed the title of Champion Hurdler two years before her record breaking Gold Cup triumph. She was a truly remarkable mare and I’m sure that win in ’86 still brings a tear to the eye of anyone, who was lucky enough to have been in attendance on that momentous occasion.
Like the above mentioned Best Mate, Denman was bred in Ireland before moving to England in 2005. Under the stewardship of Paul Nicholls, he stormed to Novices’ Hurdle success at Cheltenham later that same year, destroying a strong field by over 20 lengths, emphatically announcing his arrival on the jumps racing scene.
A switch to chasing followed a year later and he attacked the larger obstacles with the same gusto and bravado he showed over hurdles. A showdown with the great Kauto Star was inevitable, as at the time, they were clearly the two best chasers in the business. The stage was set for the pair to wage war for the first time at the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Kauto Star slighter more fancied in the betting. However, once Denman hit the front, there was nothing Kauto Star could have done, as he powered up the Cheltenham hill and sealed the Gold Cup title in front of a raucous capacity crowd.
Kauto Star would turn the tables on his stable mate in the subsequent Gold Cup, but their rivalry set the sporting world alight during the late 2000s. Both he and the relentless Denman, will be remembered as two of the best horses in jump racing history.
Where do you even start with Arkle? The highest rated horse in the history of jumps racing. Handicapping rules had to be altered and extended just to cope with Arkle ability. The shortest starting odds ever at the Cheltenham Festival – going off at 1/10 in 1966 Gold Cup.
That win in ’66 was his third successive triumph in Prestbury Park’s showpiece event and it would be the last time he would ever grace the Cheltenham turf, as injury resulted in his retirement during the course of the following season.
Between ’63 and ’67 he was so dominant and won the biggest prizes in the sport with such ease, it was a mind-boggling spectacle to behold. In Ireland, he was lauded as a sporting god, an icon for the Irish people. Fan letters simply addressed to “Arkle, Ireland” would find their way to his stable door, as racing fans around the world recognised they were in the presence of greatness.
The only time he was ever beaten, was when he was either carrying an insane amount of weight, or carrying an injury picked up during the contest. He won everything there was to win for a chaser in the sport of horse racing and his record, his ability, his legacy is never likely to be surpassed.
Not only is Arkle the most incredible horse Ireland has ever produced, but he is, quite simply, the best of all time.