Western Warhorse the Arkle winner who burst the Champagne Fever bubble

The Arkle Chase is one of my favourite races of the Cheltenham Festival. The championship race for novice chasers over two miles and thirteen demanding fences.

The race has been won by some of the greats of the turf. A glittering role of honour including, just since the turn of the century, Moscow Flyer (2002), Azertyuiop (2003), Well Chief (2004), Sizing Europe (2010, Sprinter Sacre (2012), Un De Sceaux (2015), Douvan (2016), Altior (2017) and Shishkin twelve months ago.

The betting for the 2014 Arkle was headed by the Willie Mullins’ trained grey Champagne Fever – who had won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle back in 2013 – and fellow Irish raider the Charles Byrnes’ trained Trifolium who had landed the Irish Arkle at the end of January. 

The home challenge was led by Harry Fry’s former Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby – unbeaten in two starts over fences – and Dodging Bullets winner of three of four starts over fences for Paul Nicholls. The latter was to go on to take the scalp of the mighty Sprinter Sacre in the Clarence House Chase the following January.

Nine horses went to post, and they held official ratings ranging between 167 for Rock On Ruby through Champagne Fever (158) and Trifolium (157) down to Grandouet and Valdez in the low 150s, rank outsider Brick Red 143 and Western Warhorse – who had scrambled home on his sole previous starts over fences when rated 129 – at 135. 

Western Warhorse was trained by David Pipe, and he had spent the two weeks prior to the Arkle trying to persuade owner Roger Brookhouse not to run. He had never raced at two miles prior to his sole previous outing over the larger obstacles when he beat Victor Hewgo a horse rated 126 over timber by a neck in an ordinary novice chase at Doncaster. 

He was described as a talented “fruit-loop” by connections in the build up to the race and he was fitted with a first-time hood on the day in the hope that the headgear would help him settle. He had been less than amenable to restraint on more than one occasion over timber. 

Western Warhorse was driven into the first and led but was soon overtaken by both dual Festival winner Champagne Fever – had also won the Champion Bumper of 2012 – and Trifolium and he maintained that position until four out when racecourse commentator Mark Johnson utters the famous if not immortal line “and Western Warhorse is already beginning to hoist the white flag.”

Rock On Ruby lacked scope for fences and he was beaten as early as the fourth following a shuddering mistake, but five were still in with a realistic chance going to two out although Ruby Walsh did appear to be going best on the grey who winged the last as Champagne Fever went for home.

In his wing mirrors, however, Tom Scudamore was beginning to get a tune out of Western Warhorse and the pair went toe-to-toe up the famous Cheltenham hill. Ten strides from the line it looked like Champagne Fever’s grey head would prevail, but the “fruit-loop” got up in the shadows of the post to score by a head. 

It is possible that Champagne Fever – who had missed two intended prep runs with his handler not 100% happy with his condition – was not at his best but, on the day, Western Warhorse fully deserved his victory and place in the history books. 

Western Warhorse only raced once more in his career when beaten nearly 30L at Aintree having reverted to type by pulling too hard in the Grade 1 over an additional half-a-mile.

Western Warhorse should have been sent off 100/1 or more on official ratings but his SP was “only” 33s. I was pot committed on Champagne Fever and was standing on the Cheltenham lawn in front of the grandstand when they flashed past the post praying that my eyes had deceived me and that the grey would be called the winner. It was not to be. It was, however, a great result for the bookies and a fifth success in the race for the Pipe family. 

Willie Mullins was out of luck in the race in 2014 but he has won the Arkle four times since 2015 and looks to have a stranglehold on the race in 2022 with no fewer than nine of the 23 entries made for the race including the favourite Ferny Hollow who is a top price of 6/4 with bet365. 

The legendary Irish handler may well win the 2022 Arkle, but the 2014 renewal will always be remembered as the one that got away!