Run for the first time in 1924, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is widely regarded as the ultimate test of the staying chaser. In its early years the race was little more than a trial for the Grand National, but it grew steadily in importance and became in the immediate post-war years the main objective of the best staying steeplechasers in the British Isles.
While it is personal preference that determines the best winners of the great race, there can be little doubt that at the top of the list stands the incomparable Arkle. Here we look at what made Anne, Duchess of Westminster’s icon so special, along with five other greats who have carved their name on the Cheltenham Gold Cup roll of honour.
For fans of those horses I have left out, in particular Easter Hero, Prince Regent, Cottage Rake, Dawn Run and Desert Orchid, sorry, but a line has to be drawn somewhere.
GOLDEN MILLER (1932 to 1936)
Owned by the eccentric Miss Dorothy Paget, the outstanding chaser of the pre-war period’s record five Gold Cup victories is almost certainly never to be equalled. The level of opposition during the 1930’s may not have been of the highest quality but when you add Golden Miller’s record Gold Cup – Grand National double of 1934 it is hard to dismiss the son of five guinea sire Goldcourt’s claims as one of the true greats of steeplechasing.
MILL HOUSE (1963)
Fate can be cruel sometimes and if the 12 length 1963 Gold Cup winner had not been born in the same year as Arkle, the Fulke Walwyn-trained son of King Hal would probably be regarded as one of the four greatest steeplechasers of all time. Beaten by ‘Himself’ in the following year’s epic Gold Cup (the course record was demolished by four seconds), ‘The Big Horse’ reached a watershed from which his fortunes never revived.
The last time the two champions met was in the Gallagher Gold Cup at Sandown in November 1965, with Arkle on 12st 7lb and Mill House on 11st 5lb. Mill House’s jockey David Nicholson claimed “Arkle broke my fellow’s heart” as the great horse streaked home, beating the course record by an incredible 17 seconds.
With Arkle’s career over due to injury, Mill House won Sandown’s Whitbread Gold Cup in April, 1967. When ‘The Big Horse’ approached the Unsaddling Enclosure, the emotion was overwhelming as the leaves of time fell away. While his host of admirers looked on, fighting back the tears, there were dreams of what might have been.
ARKLE (1964 to 1966)
Exact comparisons between champions from different eras are impossible. But the triple Gold Cup winner did enough to convince most observers that the Anne, Duchess of Westminster-owned son of Archive had reached a level of equine excellence within his sphere that could never be bettered, or even equalled.
Arkle’s weight-carrying performances are the stuff of legend, including when just failing to give 35lb to a fitter Stalbridge Colonist in the 1966 Hennessy Gold Cup, a horse who just a few months later failed by three quarters of a length to win the 1967 Gold Cup after Arkle’s career-ending injury, sustained in the previous years King George.
To the British public, the horse referred to simply as ‘Himself’ achieved a form of hero worship unmatched within the sport. Letters from fans around the world would arrive at trainer Tom Dreaper’s Kilsallaghan stable addressed simply to – Arkle, Ireland. If ever the word legend could be fittingly applied to a racehorse, the name of that horse would be Arkle, the greatest of all chasers.
BEST MATE (2002 to 2004)
Unlike Arkle, Best Mate ran only once in a handicap chase, when failing by half a length to concede 20lb to a decent horse in Wahiba Sands. The triple Gold Cup winner achieved a best Timeform rating of 182, some 30lb below that of Arkle, a mark the Halifax-based company claimed could have been higher if Henrietta Knight’s charge had been allowed to run in more handicaps.
The Jim Lewis-owned gelding set something of a trend by having a very light campaign ahead of each Gold Cup attempt. However, there is no doubting the ability of the horse who was withdrawn from the 2005 renewal due to a burst blood vessel and who sadly died later that year when suffering a suspected heart attack after being pulled-up in Exeter’s Haldon Gold Cup.
Despite having only the one Gold Cup victory to his name, that seven length thrashing of his illustrious stablemate Kauto Star could be regarded as one of the best post-war Gold Cup performances.
The son of Presenting probably failed to reproduce that level of form when runner-up in three subsequent Gold Cups. But the gelding’s tremendous weight-carrying victories in the Hennessy Gold Cups of 2007 and 2009 entitles him to be regarded as one of the best six winners of steeplechasing’s greatest test of man and horse.
KAUTO STAR (2007 and 2009)
In the absence of Arkle, Paul Nicholls’ versatile performer could be regarded as the next best horse to win the Gold Cup, regaining the crown he lost to stablemate Denman in 2008 when defeating that horse by 13 lengths the following year.
The Village Star gelding won 19 of his 31 starts over fences, 16 at Grade 1 level including five King George’s and four Betfair Chases, a record which speaks for itself. Kauto Star achieved a career-high rating of 193 when falling in Imperial Commander’s Gold Cup of 2010, a mark for a steeplechaser which is unlikely to be matched for some time to come.