Cheltenham Memories: Cracking Champion Hurdles This Century

‘There have been many encounters at the Cheltenham Festival which will live long in the memory. From the days of Arkle, Desert Orchid and to Kauto Star, there have been horses and clashes that will stand the test of time. Ed Quigley goes on a trip down memory lane selecting some of his favourite races and moments throughout the years, and some of the more dramatic and unusual moments. Sit back and enjoy reliving some great encounters here on, as you join us for the series of Cheltenham Memories.

Rooster Booster (2003)

Visually, one of the most devastating performances in recent years, as the popular grey took apart the opposition to win by 11 lengths.

The County Hurdle winner the year before, he had really progressed through the ranks during the current season, rattling up four wins on the bounce. There was still that air of ‘he’s only a handicapper’ in the build up as punters were looking to exciting novice Rhinestone Cowboy to oblige.

The runners and riders were greeted by a fantastic cheer as the tapes went up, but from a long way out there was only one horse who looked to be in complete control, and that was Rooster Booster, who was absolutely tanking in the hands of Richard Johnson as they turned into the home straight.

It looked to be just a case of ‘how far?’ and so it proved to be as the duo sauntered into the lead coming towards the final flight. Simon Holt’s commentary perfectly captured the moment; “he says go on Rooster Booster who is jet-propelled at the last!”

It was a devastating turn of foot from the nine-year-old who stormed up the Cheltenham Hill for the easiest of wins at the top level. Unsurprisingly, he never hit those giddy heights again of that great day at Prestbury Park, but it is a performance that lives long in the memory and is still talked about today.

Hardy Eustace (2005)

One the great Champion Hurdles, and naturally, it has gone down in racing circles more for what didn’t happen, than what necessarily did.

Hardy Eustace, upset the apple cart the previous year to land the spoils at 33/1, but came into the 2005 renewal in red-hot form and was sent off the 7/2 joint-favourite.

Attempting to put in a polar-to-post performance, Hardy Eustace was leading them a merry dance for the most part, and jumping the second last hurdle seemed to have most of his rivals in trouble.

Two horses moved out of the trailing pack to go after him – one of them being the persistent battler Brave Inca, the other being the rapidly improving Grade 1 scorer Harchibald, who arrived at Prestbury Park after seeing off Rooster Booster in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

What unfolded in up the home straight at on that hazy day in March will forever be etched in the chapters of racing folklore; Hardy Eustace tried to fend off a battling Brave Inca, whilst sitting motionless was the stealth bomber-like Paul Carberry, stalking the pair and waiting to pounce. He jumped the last and loomed up in between the two aforementioned scrappers with it looking like a question of how far he would win by rather than whether he would actually cross the line in front.

Carberry waited and waited, not wanting to push the button too soon. The waiting tactics were exaggerated to maximum as Carberry wanted to deliver his mount to a nicety; however, when he asked his mount to go and win the race in the closing stages, the response was not immediate and he flattened out to finish second. To this day, Carberry maintains he gave the horse “the best chance he could of winning” in a ride which still divides opinion to this day.

Hardy Eustace got the job done, in one of the all-time great Champion Hurdles.

Punjabi (2009)

The build up to the 2009 Champion Hurdle was all about one horse; Binocular. Runner-up in the Supreme the previous season, he had looked ultra-impressive in everything subsequently, going the 2009/2009 season unbeaten. The only question mark about him, regarded whether he would ‘get up the Cheltenham Hill’ as 12 months earlier, his run seemed to flatten out a little after travelling well.

Despite that, it didn’t stop him becoming one of the “bankers of all time” and “the certainty of all certainties” on the Cheltenham Preview Night circuit. Rather forgotten about in the betting was stablemate and 22/1 poke Punjabi. The six-year-old had finished third a year earlier, but did come into this race under a little bit of a cloud after falling in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and then being swatted aside in the Kingwell Hurdle.

However, he was always well positioned; he hit the front alongside Celestial Halo, with Binocular seemingly cruising in behind, stalking in the hands of AP McCoy. The three horses headed up the Cheltenham Hill in a ding dong battle, where once again Binocular looked as though he would win by half the track, but just started to wilt when it came to the hard yards.

Punjabi, in an all-out drive in the hands of Barry Geraghty saw off Celestial Halo by a neck, with Binocular a further head behind him. A wonderfully exciting contest, in which you could hear the sigh of relief from bookmakers in the aftermath. Binocular would put the record straight in no uncertain terms a year later when he trounced the field, but it was that day in the spring of 2009 belonged to the big white blaze of Punjabi.

Hurricane Fly (2013)

Everyone likes a comeback story, and in 2013, Hurricane Fly became just the second horse to regain the Champion Hurdle hurdle crown.

Sent off the 13/8f, he wasn’t always travelling with his usual zest, and created an uneasy tension in the packed enclosures during the contest.

Ruby Walsh had to keep niggling at him from an early stage, as on occasions he seemed to come off the bit and lose ground at vital stages. Yet despite that, he came alive under Walsh as they free-wheeled down the hill towards the second last hurdle, eating up the ground on the three horses ahead of him with apparent ease.

Once he joined Rock On Ruby and co, there was no denying him, as a chorus of frenzied punters went into overdrive as ‘The Fly’ pulled a couple of lengths clear approaching the last flight. He crossed the line to jubilant scenes and the Guiness Village went wild. Great scenes, and a top performance from a top horse.

Faugheen (2015)

Faugheen The Machine! This horse really captured the public’s imagination and the previous year’s Ballymore winner, and looked imperious all season heading into the big one.

Sent off 4/5f, it was a case of pillar to post as Ruby sent off his willing companion into the lead and only for a brief moment did he ever look like getting passed. It was at the second-last hurdle, where a skewiff jump appeared to leave the door ajar for the likes of Jezki and Hurricane Fly to pounce. The worry was short-lived, as Faugheen hit the afterburners and took off to storm clear up the home-straight.

A scintillating performance from the Willie Mullins star, as ‘ The Machine’ made light work of his rivals on a gloriously sunny day in Cheltenham.