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.
Here are festival.org.uk we’re ever primed to discuss, analyse and celebrate what is surely the jewel in the crown of UK racing, the Cheltenham Festival. Last year’s event just managed to avoid lockdown, and thankfully this year the Festival is once again taking place, albeit without an on-course crowd. With races including Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Queen Mother Champion Chase, and Stayers’ Hurdle to look forward to, and TV audiences of countless millions, we’re no doubt in for an amazing feast of racing action. To get us in the spirit, here’s a lighthearted Betway Racing Cheltenham quiz featuring some well known sporting names showing us what they know (or don’t!) about the sport of kings, and festival itself.
Few, if any, steeplechasers of the modern era – not even the trail-blazing grey, Desert Orchid – have captured the imagination of the racing public in the same way as Kauto Star. Although rated fully a stone-and-a-half inferior to Arkle, according Timeform, Kauto Star nonetheless ranks joint-fourth, alongside Mill House, in the list of highest-rated steeplechasers of the Timeform Era. Poignantly, until usurped by Arkle, Mill House was widely regarded as the best British steeplechaser since Golden Miller in the Thirties, so the assertion of Ruby Walsh, who rode Kauto Star to 17 of his 23 victories, that he was ‘the horse of my lifetime’ is entirely justifiable.
Owned by Clive Smith and trained by Paul Nicholls – from whose yard his eventual departure, to embark upon a new career in dressage, in 2012, caused an acrimonious split between the pair – Kauto Star is probably best remembered for winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton an unprecedented five times between 2006 and 2011. However, Kauto Star ran at the Cheltenham Festival every year between 2006 and 2012. On his first attempt, as a six-year-old, he fell at the third fence, when favourite, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase but, for the rest of his career, exclusively contested the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Indeed, Kauto Star won the ‘Blue Riband’ event at his first attempt in 2007 and, although beaten 7 lengths by stable companion Denman when odds-on to defend his title in 2008, avenged that defeat with an impressive, 13-length defeat of the same horse on his return to Prestbury Park. In so doing, he became the first horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup. All told, Kauto Star won 19 of the 31 steeplechases he contested – including 16 at Grade One level – at distances between 1 mile 7½ furlongs and 3 miles 2½ furlongs, and over £2.3 million in prize money. Tragically, after suffering complications to neck and pelvic injuries sustained in a freak accident in a field at home, Kauto Star was humanely euthanised in 2015.