Paul Nicholls

It would be fair to say that Paul Nicholls has bought more than one new pair of trousers since weighing in, at 10st 5lb, on Broadheath in the Hennessy Gold Cup in 1986. However, Nicholls retired as a jockey three years later, due to weight problems and, ultimately, to a broken leg sustained when he was kicked by a horse during morning exercise and has since become the foremost National Hunt trainer of his generation.

Nicholls spent two years as assistant trainer to David Barons, to whom he had previously been stable jockey, before responding to an advertisement placed in the Sporting Life by Paul Barber, owner and landlord of Manor Farm Stables in Ditcheat, near Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Nicholls took out a training licence in his own right and became tenant of the former dairy farming facility, with a string of just eight horses, in November, 1991. After a modest start, he gradually increased his winning tally, year-by-year, but enjoyed his real ‘breakthrough’ season in 1998/99, when he saddled over 100 winners and won over £1 million in prize money for the first time.

Indeed, it was during the 1998/99 season that Nicholls saddled his first Cheltenham Festival winner, or winners, namely Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Call Equiname in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and See More Business in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That high-profile treble was sufficient to win the leading trainer award for the first time and, although he would not saddle another Cheltenham Festival winner until 2003, he won the award again in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Fast forward a decade or so and Nicholls has saddled at least one winner at the Cheltenham Festival every year since 2003 and his career total of 45 winners makes him the third most successful trainer, behind only Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, in the history of the famous March meeting. Highlights of his training including winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup three more times, with Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009 and Denman in 2008 and, of course, winning the Stayers’ Hurdle four years running with Big Buck’s in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Ruby Walsh

Ruby Walsh took the world of National Hunt racing by surprise when, immediately after winning the Punchestown Gold Cup on Kemboy in May, 2019, he announced his retirement. In his 24-year career, Walsh rode over 2,500 winners, including 59 at the Cheltenham Festival – 23 ahead of his nearest pursuer, Barry Geraghty – and for several years had the pick of rides from Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, both champion trainers on their respective sides of the Irish Sea. Indeed, Willie Mullins, who has been Irish Champion National Hunt Trainer every season since 2007/08, described Walsh as ‘the daddy of them all’.

In fact, it was for County Carlow-based handler that Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet in the Champion Bumper, as an 18-year-old amateur rider in 1998. He turned professional at the start of the following season and, in the next 18 years, was leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival 11 times, including five consecutive years between 2013 and 2017. In 2009, Walsh set a record by riding seven winners over the four days and equalled that record in 2016, by which time he had left his role as stable jockey to Paul Nicholls after over a decade commuting between Britain and Ireland.

Of the four main ‘championship’ races run at the Cheltenham Festival, Walsh won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice on Kauto Star, trained by Nicholls, the Champion Hurdle four times, on Hurricane Fly (twice), Faugheen and Annie Power, all trained by Mullins, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, on Azertyuiop and Master Minded (twice), both trained by Nicholls, and the Stayers’ Hurdle five times on Big Buck’s (four times), trained by Nicholls, and Nichols Canyon, trained by Mullins. Elsewhere on the Festival programme, he also won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle eight times on Quevega (six times), Vroum Vroum Mag and Benie Des Dieux.

Arkle

In the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was first run, as a steeplechase, in 1924, just four horses – Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate – have won the race three years running. All four have carved their names, indelibly, into Cheltenham Festival history, but none more so than Arkle, whose domination of the best horses of his day, in the mid-1960s, made him a national hero in his native Ireland. Even today, nearly five decades after his untimely death, at the age of thirteen, in 1970, Arkle is the yardstick by which all other steeplechasers are judged.

Owned by Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster and trained by Tom Dreaper in Co. Dublin, Arkle had already won what is now the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1963 before he lined up for his first attempt at the ‘Blue Riband’ event the following year. On that occasion, the pick of the opposition was the reigning champion, Mill House – arguably the best British steeplechaser since Golden Miller but still, ultimately, rated 21lb inferior to Arkle, according to Timeform – who was sent off 8/13 favourite to retain his title. Patiently ridden by Pat Taaffe, Arkle drew alongside long-time leader at the second-last fence, took a length lead at the last and sprinted clear to win by 5 lengths; his winning time, of 6 minutes 45.6 seconds, smashed the course record.

Arkle and Mill House reopposed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1965, but this time Arkle was sent off favourite, at prohibitive odds of 30/100, to confirm the form. He did so with aplomb, effortlessly sprinting clear in the closing stages to win by 20 lengths, with Mill House toiling in his wake. Mill House missed the 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup with tendon trouble but, by that stage, Arkle was considered so far superior to his four rivals that he was sent off the shortest-priced favourite in the history of the race, at 1/10. Arkle gave his supporters an anxious moment when ploughing through the fence in front of the stands on the first circuit, but maintained his rhythm and eventually cantered home 30 lengths clear of his nearest pursuer, Dormant.

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