The Ultimate Cheltenham Racehorse
Known as Jump racing’s Olympics, the Cheltenham Festival is both the undoubted pinnacle of National Hunt Racing and the ultimate test of a racehorse.
Many star performers will take to the stage in a bid to cement their name into racing history with a win at the legendary Prestbury Park venue. But what exactly are the magic ingredients that go into making the ultimate Cheltenham equine specimen?
Speed, Jumping and Stamina are all clearly top of the wish list when picking out the athlete most likely to challenge, but what about the mental elements that are essential in the makeup of champions? Courage, Consistency and that little hint of swagger are all essential when it comes to formulating a Cheltenham winner.
Below we list off legendary Cheltenham horses that we think best embody these six elements.
Speed – Istabraq
Cheltenham Honours: 3 x Champion Hurdle – 1998, 1999, 2000
1 x RSA Hurdle (Now the Ballymore) – 1997
We start with a horse that needs little introduction, the imperious Istabraq remains the horse that all gifted hurdlers are still judged against today.
Sired by the legendary stallion Sadler’s Wells, Istabraq was originally bred to contest the Flat Classics, and it was that Flat pedigree and latent speed that would help establish him as one of the most dominant racers in National Hunt history.
His turn of foot so lethally carrying him to easy victory at 4 successive Cheltenham Festivals.
Had it not been for a cancelled Cheltenham in 2001, he quite feasibly would have won a record fourth successive Champion Hurdle and fully established himself as the greatest of all time.
Racing in the famous green and gold silks of JP McManus, Istabraq can be seen in the video below, cruising to his third Champion Hurdle win. His rivals simply unable to land a glove on him as he streaks away up the hill.
Stamina – Big Buck’s
Cheltenham honours: 4 x Stayers Hurdle – 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012
Big Bucks well and truly moved the goalposts in what people thought was possible in the art of staying hurdling.
Such was his class and unparalleled stamina; the racing public grew to truly adore Paul Nichols’ big bay as he went about an 18-race unbeaten run that broke all post-war hurdling records.
Yet what was so remarkable about his winning streak was the commanding and at times arrogant nature by which he’d dismiss his rivals.
Seemingly in a battle coming over the final flight up the Cheltenham hill on so many occasions, Big Bucks would love nothing more than to eyeball his rival and then power away up the straight.
His supreme staying power would see go on to amass over £1.25 million in prize money and upon his retirement his trainer Paul Nichols commented aptly, “he’s probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, staying hurdler of all-time. He’s been great for the public, great for racing and I love him to death.”
Jumping – Denman
Cheltenham honours: 1 x RSA Chase 2007
1 x Gold Cup 2008 (3x a Runner Up)
— Racing UK (@Racing_UK) March 1, 2018
Few horses forge such a connection with the public like the powerhouse that was Denman.
While not quite as brilliant as his equally adored neighbour Kauto Star (more about him later), the sight of Denman in full cry over his favourite larger obstacles was enough to move even the hardiest of racing aficionados. He only fell once in his glittering 24-race career.
His love for chasing started with an eight-race winning streak, featuring a dominant win in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in 2007 and an authoritative weight carrying performance in the 2007 Hennessey Gold Cup.
All roads led to Cheltenham and the 2008 showdown between him and Kauto Star in what was the most hotly anticipated Gold Cup in modern history.
In a beautiful rhythm under jockey Sam Thomas throughout, Denman didn’t touch a twig of his obstacles as he led home a 1-2-3 for his trainer Paul Nichols.
Described on the day as “relentless and remorseless” by commentator Richard Hoiles, Denman’s biggest win was as much down to his supreme jumping as it was his giant heart.
A quick comparison of his leaps to the rest of the fields in the last mile just highlight how important slick jumping is at an unforgiving track like Cheltenham.
Courage – Kauto Star
Cheltenham honours: 2 x Gold Cup 2007, 2009
— Racing UK (@Racing_UK) March 1, 2018
Class incarnate, Kauto Star was quite simply the finest staying chaser since the long-gone days of Arkle; in an eight-yearlong racing career he never lost the ability to amaze and astound.
A machine for collecting racing records, the French bred bay holds one particular record that sees him earn his place here for bravery alone.
That record still stands today and is simply that he is the only horse in history to have ever regained the Gold Cup; no less than 24 horses on 34 occasions had attempted this feat before him.
They say you learn much more about a fighter in defeat than you do in victory and that is 100% true when it comes to Kauto.
Messy jumping saw him unable to lay a glove on Denman in 2008, but despite being seven lengths adrift at the business end of the race he never stopped trying and gave his all to finish 2nd.
His comeback win in 2009 was down to both guts and class in equal measure.
Swagger – Sprinter Sacre
Cheltenham honours: 1 X Arkle Chase 2012,
2 x Champion Chase 2013, 2016
SPRINTER SACRE has been retired by the @sevenbarrows team
Remember his Champion Chase win in March? https://t.co/A4R4UEqobX
— Channel 4 Racing (@Channel4Racing) November 13, 2016
Dubbed the Black Aeroplane, Sprinter Sacre will be best remembered for dominating the two-mile chasing division in a manner that few can recollect.
Rated by form experts Timeform as the greatest chaser of the twentieth century, in the initial zenith of his career he simply carried an aura of invincibility about him.
His first Cheltenham Festival win in the 2012 Arkle Chase was delivered with the minimum of fuss at odds of 8/11, while his first Champion Chase win a year late came about at scarcely believable price of 1/4.
His diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat and subsequent decline would see his aura go into hibernation for two seasons and would see many cast him aside as a spent force.
However, the strut and swagger would return to devastating effect in the 2016 Champion Chase as he quashed his younger, more fancied rivals in the manner that nobody could have anticipated.
His trainer Nicky Henderson said, “He just has that incredible aura about him. He knows he’s good and he likes to tell everybody he’s good”.
Consistency – Quevega
Cheltenham Honours: Mares Hurdle x 6 (2009 – 2014)
So consistent you could practically set your watch by her, the super mare Quevega essentially became punters’ best friend for an unmatched six consecutive Cheltenham Festivals.
Expertly managed by the impossibly patient Willie Mullins, the daughter of Robin des Champs was always in peak condition to land the odds in the same race, the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, year after year.
Despite the odd moment of slight worry approaching the turn for home, Quevega can be seen here doing what Quevega does – winning.
Her exploits are now enshrined in the form of the “Quevega’s”, a premium bar located within the club enclosure at Cheltenham racecourse. One thing’s for sure, she certainly paid for a few bar tabs in her time.