On the morning of the 1964 Gold Cup, ‘Capt Keen’ – writing in the Irish Independent – argued that a successful title defence from the English-trained Mill House would in itself be a cause for Irish celebration.
hy? Because the champion had been bred by the Lawlor family – hoteliers in Naas, Co Kildare.
“Let us not forget that both horses are Irish,” he wrote of the impending battle with Arkle, his expectation being for another Mill House victory.
Yet, two years later, ‘Capt Keen’ was so certain of a third consecutive Arkle triumph in the great race, he surmised that it would be delivered “by whatever distance Pat Taaffe can manage to restrain him to”.
Mill House and Arkle were actually bred just 10 miles apart, yet ultimately became the great, early exemplars of what now resounds as a riotous cross-channel rivalry.
Noel Meade reckons that for the entirety of his time going to Cheltenham, it has been “about beating the English”.
That narrative finds its provenance in that Gold Cup of ’64 and public expectation of a contest that, on British government recommendation, resulted in the race being moved from its traditional midweek slot to a more elevated Saturday status.
Arkle, having won the ’63 Broadway Chase at Cheltenham by an improbable 20 lengths, arrived as a clear and obvious threat to Mill House, one English newspaper declaring: “The Cheltenham management could not have chosen a more propitious year to run the race on a Saturday.”
There would be only four runners in that ’64 Gold Cup, yet this mattered little to those present on a bitingly cold day in the Cotswolds, Arkle winning in a new course record time.
Maybe context is important here. Take out Vincent O’Brien’s three consecutive wins with Cottage Rake (’48-’50) and you are left with only four other Irish-trained winners throughout the previous 40 years.
Writing for The Observer, Hugh McIlvanney reported thus: “When it happened, the wild demonstrations in the stands seemed to move bodily around to the unsaddling enclosure. The Irish had done down the English and no-one was being allowed to overlook the fact.”
Dawn Run’s memorable victory in ’86 would be Ireland’s only Gold Cup win of the Eighties, so the modern arithmetic – seven wins from the last nine renewals – hints at an extraordinary power-shift in National Hunt racing that now sees the finest equine talent housed predominantly in Irish yards.
This is a topic addressed in part two of the wonderful four-part TG4 series ‘Laochra Na Rásaíochta’. After Dawn Run’s celebrated charge up the Cheltenham hill, it would be another 10 years before Fergie Sutherland saddled the next Irish winner, Imperial Call, a 9/2 success in the hands of 30-year-old Conor O’Dwyer.
Sutherland’s patient nurture of a notoriously challenging creature required hours of gentle observation on the gallops as distinct from strident cajoling.
“If he was in another yard, he’d have been just probably another horse,” reflects O’Dwyer, who was riding his first Festival winner.
“But Fergie gave him that time and I think he needed it all.”
Turning down the hill, O’Dwyer remembers an animated Richard Dunwoody on One Man trying to psyche him out by suggesting that his mount was beginning to gas. But Dunwoody might as well have been trying to spook a concrete post.
As O’Dwyer remembers it: “I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, he’s the one that’s worrying, not me. He’s not going to tell me how to win a race. He’ll tell me how to lose it!’”
In ’05, Kicking King climbed off his sick-bed to deliver another Irish win with Barry Geraghty on board and Tom Taaffe the successful trainer, 31 years after his father Pat had trained Captain Christy to victory and 39 years since Pat rode Arkle to that third victory.
One year later, Mouse Morris delivered a first Gold Cup win for the Gigginstown colours with War Of Attrition, O’Dwyer the winning jockey again, this time edging out the challenge of Ruby Walsh on Hedgehunter.
War Of Attrition had never actually won over a Gold Cup distance and Morris recalls watching the race in an empty hospitality tent with only a waiter and waitress for company.
“I’d say they probably thought I was stone bonkers when he came up the hill!” Mouse tells TG4 in ‘Laochra Na Rásaíochta’.
“I was hugging them. I went running up to the winner’s enclosure and I was panting. It was probably the only time I said, ‘Jesus, I’ll have to give those cigarettes up!’
“But that hasn’t happened.”
The beauty of War Of Attrition’s win was that both Morris and O’Dwyer openly admit today that, for most of their careers, they never truly imagined a race win of that stature was within their reach. It was the stuff, essentially, of fantasy.
“But sure I always dream!” smiles Mouse. “If you don’t dream, there’s not much point in sleeping!”
Eight years later, Davy Russell rebounded from that very public sacking as Gigginstown Stud’s number one rider to guide a notoriously pace-shy Lord Windermere to disputed victory for Jim Culloty’s yard, the winner appearing to interfere with a Willie Mullins trained On His Own during the run-in.
The verdict was eventually delivered from the stewards’ room, Mullins left disappointed and, as he remembers, surprised. Culloty – previously a celebrated partner to three-time winner Best Mate – had been having a wretched season as trainer with only blanks to his name since a point-to-point win the previous November. Many even believed his Cork yard to be in crisis, but not Jim.
As it happened, Culloty brought just two horses to that 2014 Festival, both winning. And Russell? His last act that Friday was to score a 16/1 winner for Gigginstown (their new number one, Bryan Cooper, having been injured in a wretched fall two days earlier) on Savello in the Grand Annual Chase – the final race on the card.
Two years later, Cooper had his own day out, coaxing a broadly under-appreciated Don Cossack first up the hill for Gordon Elliott, while – in 2017 – it was the turn of Jessica Harrington’s Sizing John, under the wily hand of Robbie Power, to take the week’s biggest prize.
It had been on Power’s recommendation that Harrington moved Sizing John up in trip, triggering one of the all-time great training surges, the big horse winning Irish Gold Cup, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Punchestown Gold Cup all within a tight pocket of weeks.
Of her victory in the Cotswolds, Harrington declares colourfully: “You couldn’t find me. I’m somewhere up there by the moon!”
By 2019, Willie Mullins had been pitching up at Cheltenham for 31 years, yet – despite his emphatic status as the Festival’s most successful trainer – had never saddled a Gold Cup winner.
Six second places equipped Mullins with a kind of weathered fatalism and, with three of his four entries gone by the end of the first circuit that year, he assumed an old story was simply being rewritten.
Al Boum Photo was, as Mullins averred, “just Ordinary Joe” in a stable of superstars, blessed with neither the regal gait of a Florida Pearl or the flowing majesty of a Hurricane Fly.
He carried a chequered history too between falls and mishaps, but he had serious breeding and Paul Townend on his back.
Willie admits his optimism was threadbare with Bellshill, Kemboy and Invitation Only all out of the running halfway through that 2019 renewal.
“I said, ‘That’s it, it’s just going to be the race we’re never going to win!’” he reflects with candour.
“And so be it!”
But Al Boum Photo would break Willie’s duck, then return one year later to become the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back Gold Cups.
And in 2021, this ‘Ordinary Joe’ was back in the Cotswolds, looking to emulate Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate as a three-time winner.
It didn’t happen though, Al Boum Photo led up the hill by two other Irish horses, Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, both trained by Henry De Bromhead.
It was the former who got to the line first under Jack Kennedy’s direction and, of course, Rachael Blackmore then took her place in history one year later as the first female jockey to win Cheltenham’s great showpiece on A Plus Tard.
So four Irish winners on the bounce then and this year’s market again heavy with strong visiting chances for Friday. The biggest event on the chasing calendar now dancing to a different song.
Episode Two of the TG4 series ‘Laochra N Rásaíochta’ airs at 8.0 on Wednesday night