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An equine landmark, Cheltenham Gold Cup centenary 'epitomized' heights unparalleled

By Harsh Thakor* 

The Cheltenham Gold Cup  is the most prestigious jumping race in the British Isles Steeplechasing calendar and the Cheltenham festival, a cynosure of every English and Irish racegoer. Few sporting events match or surpass the sheer intensity, competitiveness and joy that radiates its legacy. Few moments are more pulsating than witnessing a Gold Cup or a Cheltenham festival. In addition to that the race is run amidst the background of an evergreen English countryside, encircled by hills and pastures, giving a sensation of a paradise or heavenly location.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup has epitomized equine or athletic achievements and sporting landmarks in heights rarely paralleled. It also set up or shaped a variety of characters of diverse qualities. It testifies the sport is not all about gambling or betting. Horses were characters in their own right, exuding many qualities potent in a human being.
I was privileged to attend the centenary of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It’s inaugural race was run in March 1924. Earlier studying in Birmingham I had witnessed the running of the 1980 Cheltenham Gold Cup, a classic in its own right.
People were friendly or welcoming at the course and the hotel.
When I witnessed Galopin des Champs from Ireland triumph in this 100th year, it resurrected memories of all the great equine heroes of yesteryear, personifying sporting athleticism at its supreme height. Arguably, he was in the league of the legends of the past, doing complete justice to the great legacy of the race.
It was heart touching to witness the sheer jubilation or enthusiasm of the crowds. 
I cherish memories of an Irishman celebrating a winner, reminiscent of West Indies cricket fans clapping each other after the fall of a wicket. In this edition the Irish won the battle against the English, in the Gold Cup and festival overall. 
Vibrations are echoed in the tussle between Irish and the English of the duels between erstwhile USSR and USA in the Olympics or and India-Pakistan cricket match. It can never obliterate my mind how an Irishman roars or waves in jubilation after an Irish horse past the winning post first. It is also heart touching to witness the sheer camaraderie. Rarely is British-Irish traditional rivalry so illustratively witnessed. 
What I like is that the rivalry is healthy and promotes sporting spirit. Rarely in any sporting event does the complexion have such a sensational twist or turn as in the final downhill climb at Cheltenham. The Gold Cup manifests the test of racehorse in jumping hazardous fences, unlike the flat. The best Gold Cup horse is a concoction of speed, endurance, jumping ability, combative spirit and tenacity.  
Few grounds are as testing for a horse as Cheltenham, with the going varying from form to heavy going and climatic changes transforming 180 degrees, within a day. Often a hot sunny day would be intervened by heavy downpour of rain. I had firsthand experience of the weather not being honest this year, in the two days I spent. What distinguished this race is the unique 3 and a ¼ mile course and a most grueling hill at the conclusion, literally making a horse climb. The conditions provided the ground for the most dramatic finishes or turnarounds in sport.
From 1929 with the arrival of Easter Hero  the race turned into a Blue Riband event or showpiece. Remarkably, the event was originally a three mile flat race with weight for age and only confined to three year olds. Morally, it had its birth in the 1820s. Official Red Splash was the first horse to walk into the winner’s enclosure in a Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Great Gold Cup horses 

Golden Miller won the race on five consecutive occasions from 1932-36 in the most testing or grueling conditions. He also achieved the unique feat of winning both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National in 1935, an unprecedented feat in the sport. Overall he won 29, out of 55 races.  Miller made an impact like a prophet in the sport, taking sporting achievements to a pinnacle.
 The very story of how owner Dorothy Paget came to acquire him makes a book itself. Golden Miller epitomized the quality of a horse as a supreme athlete, be it speed, temperament stamina and above all the will to win. Golden Miller won the 1993 and 1934 Gold cups by margins of 6 lengths and 10 lengths, respectively. 
Golden Miller’s conquering of Thommond 11 in 1935 manifested courage and a duel at its supreme height prevailing by only 3/4th of a length. In 1936 it epitomized every ingredient of a perfect  equine athlete, winning by a long looking margin of 12 lengths. Ironically, the Miller was partnered by both Ted Leader and from 1933 by Gerry Wilson. Basil Brisaoe schooled the superstar. Sadly it bid farewell to the Gold cup in 1938, being beaten by Morse Code.
From 1964-1969, Arkle bestowed glory or scaled zones in athletic achievement unparalleled in history of sport. The superstar transcended zones in metaphysical regions. The manner Arkle’s hoove’s graced the turf to annihilate opponents simply defied biomechanical laws.
Arkle won 22 out of 26 races over fences, and 27 out of 35 overall. Arkle revised handicapping rules, conquering opponents like windmill grounding flour and displaying supremacy of creature from another planet. The manner Arkle’s hoove’s graced the turf simply defied conventional biomechanics, delving in metaphysical regions.
 The manner Arkle completed hat trick of Gold cup wins and captured other prestigious races like the King George vi th chase or Hennessey Gregions, pulled the racing public like magnet, in the degree of the Queen of England receiving public adoration. With his ears pricked on the racecourse, Arkle resembled an emperor greeting his subjects.
Arkle’s duel with another great horse Mill House, constituted the legendary epic contests of sport. In any other era, Mill House would have emerged an equine superstar. Arkle’s avenging of defeat in the Hennessey Gold Cup earlier faced by Mill House in the 1964 Cheltenham Gold cup, had vibrations of a great Hollywood  epic. In 1966 Arkle triumphed by margin of 30 lengths, scaling sporting supremacy in regions of the divine. It was almost impossible to talk about or class any chaser in the same breath as Arkle but stars like Desert Orchid, Best Mate and Kauto  Star resurrected memories of Arkle. 
Although winning only one Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989, Desert Orchid or ‘Dessie’ took both class and combative spirit to depths rarely scaled and pulled the public like footballer Pele. The manner Dessie caught  and overtook Yahoo who had hit the front on entering the final straight, personified combativeness courage  or relentless spirit at it’s superlative height. Notably, he was the first Grey coloured horse, to win the Blue Riband event. Few ever as much resonated with the non-racing public. Dessie won 34 out of 70 starts, overall.
Best Mate emulated Arkle, winning the race on 3 consecutive occasions from 2002 to 2004 resurrecting every quality of the equine superstar, be it speed, courage or jumping ability. When he won in 2003, crushing rivals Truckers Tavern and Harbour Pilot by 10 lengths, winning with utmost disdain. In his concluding victory in 2004 Best Mate displayed combative spirit of a soldier, staving of a spirited challenge of Sir Rembrandt, to win by almost 2 lengths. On that day he was an epitome of racing temperament. Overall, he won 14 out of 22 races.
Kauto Star was arguably the only chaser after Arkle, who could challenge his pedestal at the top. The manner it established supremacy over opponents, conquered different ground and courses and electrifying acceleration, made him a genuine rival, for the title of the best of all time. Kauto Star’s duels with chaser Denman, revived memories of the clashes between Arkle and Mill House. In my view, when Kauto Star demolished his old rival Denman by a wide margin of 13 lengths after capturing the lead 3 fences from home , he virtually set a new benchmark for sporting excellence. 
The horse was twice as good as when he won the race in 2007, by a slender margin of two and a half lengths, from Exotic Dancer. Kauto was the only horse ever to regain the Gold Cup Crown. In his entire career Kauto won 23 out of 41 races overall, winning grade one races in 7 consecutive seasons, a record.
In my view the horses of previous generations had better endurance or staying power, while in modern generations had better speed. Modern Gold cup stars faded out faster than those of 3 decades ago, and are not equally versatile.
I would not be able to separate Golden Miller, Arkle and Kauto Star, respecting how sport changes in different eras. I firmly believe that a steeplechaser’s greatness does not solely depend on wins in a Gold Cup. Still with a gun on my head I may just give my vote for Golden Miller, for his sheer tenure, grit and versatility.

Best riders 

Cheltenham Gold cup has also exhibited riding skills, comparable to supreme athleticism in any sport. Pat Tafee, Audrey Brabazon, Tommy Carberry and Paul Townsend, all displayed supreme judgment of pace and comprehension of the testing conditions and course of Cheltenham.
Pat Tafee was Arkle’s permanent rider, who also rode Arkle’s champion stable companion ‘Flying Bolt.’,riding him to 24 wins.Tafee won 3 Gold Cups on Arkle and one on Fort Leney.He rode relatively short for a jump jockey.
Paul Towsend  equalled Pat Tafee’s record of 4 victories ,having achieved two triumphs on Galopin des Champs  and tow on  Al Boum Photo. Townsend has been champion jockey in Ireland 6 times.
Morally Tommy Carberry won 4 Gold Cups, as Tied Cottage in 1980 was first past the post by eight lengths , but disqualified for a minute trace of theobromine ,which could never have affected it’s running. He triumphed on L’Escargot in 1970 and 1971 and on Ten Up in 1975, in addition to being 2nd in 1976.1977 and 1978 and coming within a jump of a win in 1979, before his mount fell at the last in 1979.Possibly,no Cheltenham rider was as sound a judge of pace or could as blindfoldedly make his way around Cheltenham.

Best trainers 

Tom Dreaper emerged supreme as trainer, winning the Blue Riband with Arkle and Prince Regent., winning 5 gold cups in all. His son Jim Dreaper,won the race with Ten Up. Late veteran trainer Fuke Walwyn won the race with Mont Temblant, Mandarin and Mill House. Ironically, his star, Diamond Edge, failed inspire of being posted favourite twice and ranking the best chaser of the respective seasons.
Paul Nicholls won the Blue Riband four times, with See More Business, Denman and Kauto Star.For ten seasons consecutively he was crowned champion trainer. He is closing in on 50 winners at the Cheltenham festival. Nicky Henderson is the Cheltenham festival’s most successful British trainer, schooling 75 festival winners. They include Cheltenham gold cup winners, Longrun and Bobsworth.
Willie Mullins has trained a record 94 festival winners and record 10 winners at festival in 2022.Ironically, he trained 6 Gold cup runner up’s before his maiden triumph in 2019 with Al Boum Photo ,who repeated success in 2020.Earlier he had won the Aintree Grand national in 2005, with Hedgerhunter. He won the last 2 editions of the Gold cup with Galopin de champs.
Other notable names are Vincent O’Brien who won with Cottage Rake from 1948-50 and Dan Moore who won successive Gold cups with L’Escargot in 1970 and 1971 and on merit won it with Tied Cottage in 1980,who was late disqualified on technical grounds.

Famous owners 

The most impactful owners have been Dorothy Paget,Anne Dutchess of West minster, Jim Lewis, Lord Stalbridge and Raymond Guest .
The Dutchess of Westminster owned Arkle, Ten Up and Ben Stack. Few owners ever devoted or understood a horse as the Dutchess towards Arkle. She named Arkle after a famous mountain in Sutherland estate, in north-west Scotland.
Raymond Guest won successive Golds Cups with L’Escargot in 1970 and 1971 and the 1975 Grand National with the same horse. Jim Lewis owned Best Mate, who won him 3 successive gold cups. Lewis was an Aston Villa football fan, managing to combine his passion for both sports. He made a significant contribution towards charities.
Dorothy Paget ‘s life was truly sensational  or mercurial. Overweight, contrary, superstitious, reclusive, self-imposing, highly unpredictable and fussy. No owner was equally popular, although she never was in pursuit of fame.
She generously donated to charities but never sought adulation or public recognition. She would harass trainers, by calling them at late hours, taking dinner at midnight, to turn her reclusive habits. She behaved like a dictator to her staff, gambled in huge amounts and loved only her horses.
Dorothy purchased Golden Miller in 1932,a deal which turned most fruitful. who won her 3 edition sof the Gold Cups. Lord Stalbridge  bred, trained and owned the 1945 winner, Red Rower and earlier साwon the race with Thrown in 1927.He also won the 1940 Grand National with Bogskar.
---
*Freelance journalist who was present in the 100th Cheltenham Gold Cup competition

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