Over fifty thousand people were at Cheltenham ahead of the 1990 with the majority of the huge crowd hoping to see the brilliant grey Desert Orchid gain back-to-back successes in the Blue Riband of British jumps racing.
Dessie went off a shade of odds on at 10/11 to supplement his success of 1989 when he was 5/2 market leader. David Elsworth’s grey was almost unbeatable going right-handed but was never quite the same horse going left-handed and his Gold Cup win on heavy ground – considered softer than ideal – in ‘89 was down to his guts and determination with more than a slice of luck given the well fancied trio of previous winner The Thinker, Irish challenger Carvills Hill and, fatally, Ten Plus were all casualties during the race.
Indeed, only five of the 13-strong field finished the course in Dessie’s Gold Cup year and there are many who believe that Ten Plus would have beaten the grey had he not fell three out. Racing folklore tells us that Ten Plus was cantering at the time of his departure; he wasn’t.
Whether he was fortunate or not in ‘89 the prevailing good to firm ground in 1990 was considered more suitable for Dessie 12 months on and he went into the race on the back of four wins from five starts during the season – but all on right-handed tracks.
Richard Dunwoody had replaced Simon Sherwood in the saddle for the 89/90 season on Dessie and he lined up at Cheltenham having never ridden the grey left-handed. I backed Jenny Pitman’s Toby Tobias. Desert Orchid had fallen at Aintree on his last start going left-handed and I knew he was vulnerable. What happened next though was something out of a Hollywood movie.
Norton’s Coin was an ex-Hunter Chaser owned and trained by west Wales farmer Sirrell Griffiths who also rode the horse around his farm and in his work. He had been beaten 40L by Desert Orchid in the King George on Boxing Day and had finished third in a moderate Newbury handicap over 2m 4f on his latest start.
Griffiths trained just three horses from his Carmarthenshire base, and he admits he thought his horse was running for place money only when his life changed for good on the 15th of March 1990. He thought he had no chance of beating the favourite, but he was wrong and there was no fluke about it.
Always travelling well in behind Desert Orchid jockey Graham McCourt – Dunwoody ironically had ridden him on his three previous wins under Rules – produced Norton’s Coin going to the last where Dessie gave way. Watching the race again the crowd go wild as the winner and Toby Tobias lock horns going up the famous hill although the noise goes down a couple of notches when it becomes apparent that a 100/1 shot was about to win the Gold Cup.
At the line Norton’s Coin had three-quarters of a length to spare over Toby Tobias leaving me frustrated and out of pocket in a Newcastle-under-Lyme betting shop – that is a tale in itself! Dessie was a further 4L back in third with his stablemate Cavvies Clown another 7L back in fourth. If there was a hard luck story in the race it was Dessie’s stablemate Cavvies Clown who lost about 15L at the start – a trait of his throughout his career.
Graham McCourt was suspended for three days for his ride on the winner with the Stewards’ saying that he had marked the horse although the jockey argued that the wheals would have disappeared by the following morning.
Sirrell Griffiths admitted in his post race interview with the BBC that he only entered the horse for the race because he had forgotten to enter his stable star for the Cathcart Chase – now Ryanair!
Norton’s Coin won only one of his 18 starts after the 1990 Gold Cup but that was also at Cheltenham on firm ground over his optimum trip of 2m 4f when he beat non other than Waterloo Boy in receipt of 3lbs.
One of only three horses trained by a Welsh farmer, in a race that he shouldn’t have run in over a trip too far and considered a no-hoper in the eyes of the formbook and bookmakers.
That is the story of the 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup when a 100/1 winner – the biggest price in the history of the great race – shocked the world of racing.
Could something similar happen this year?
I have stated in a previous column that I think the Gold Cup is a three-horse race involving previous winners Al Boum Photo, Minella Indo and Galvin but I just wonder if bet365 – who are betting Non Runner No Bet on the great race – might just have taken a chance on Aye Right at 100/1.
Trained in the Scottish borders by Harriet Graham – who is also the clerk of the course for Musselburgh racecourse – Aye Right won the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle on his sole start so far this season and finished third in the Ultima Handicap Chase on the opening day of the Festival in 2021 when he didn’t jump as well as he can. The formbook says he can’t win but nobody told Sirrell Griffiths or Norton’s Coin and we do have the insurance of money back in case he takes up the handicap option.