Who’s your best of the best among chasers and hurdlers?
We’re fond of saying in this country that our racing is the best in the world, whether this is the Derby or the delights of Aintree or the earthy authenticity of Hexham and Ludlow. The rich heritage of Jump racing in this country provides us a solid platform to contest our market-leading credentials over lesser nations of Europe, the USA and Australia whose Jumping may often be better endowed, but of inferior quality. In recent years, as watchers of the top flight races at Cheltenham and Aintree have seen only too visibly, Ireland lays claim to the fastest bloodstock, if not necessarily the best-appointed racecourses.
However, as the nights draw in, it’s every local pub’s chatter that can readily turn to the favourite horses that have graced the Turf; often those that encapsulated a memory of the sport and fired you up to follow the sport day after day.
Here’s our list of the best of this and previous generations. Of course, it won’t match yours, but it might stimulate you to think about all those I’ve left out! And whilst you’re deliberating, check out the TVG Pegasus Cup odds too!
Greatest National Hunt horses of all time
So, who are these four-legged legends who are an inspiration to the ardent National Hunt fans of multiple generations? Happily, Jump racing is a relatively young sport; the first recorded steeplechase was in 1752, between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, over 4 miles of natural country between Buttevant and Doneraile in Tipperary. However, the sport was pretty sporadic until the mid-Victorian era, when races like the Grand Annual, held at Andoversford before moving to current day Cheltenham, preceded the creation of the Grand National by 5 years in 1834.
Timeform wasn’t around for Lottery’s win of the Grand Annual, the precursor to success at Aintree, but it would be stretching the truth to contest that early winners of these few and far between races were rated at anywhere near the likes of Arkle, Sprinter Sacre and our modern day heroes.
We can’t miss out Golden Miller from the list. How could we? You can’t deny a horse that won five Cheltenham Gold Cups in a row from the list of National Hunt legends, can you? The early years of the Gold Cup, only inaugurated in 1924, were not punctuated by horses of the very highest calibre, as the race remained very much in the shadow of the Grand National. It was Golden Miller who changed all that.
Golden Miller was bred at the yard of Laurence Geraghty, grandfather of recently retired jockey Barry, by the unraced Goldcourt out of ex-hunter Miller’s Pride. Both parents had bred winners in previous offspring. Golden Miller was sent to Basil Briscoe in Cambridgeshire to be trained for the extraordinary Dorothy Paget, an owner no trainer was likely to forget in a hurry.
Between 1932-36, Golden Miller dominated the sport’s blue riband event, enhancing its profile and doing his own reputation no harm in the process. The Miller remains the only horse to have won both the Gold Cup and Grad National in the same year – 1934 – but arguably it was the 1935 Gold Cup that was his finest achievement.
The “race of the century” saw Thomond II pitted against Briscoe’s charge, and the final mile, the two were head to head in the fastest running of the race to date. A winner by 3/4l, Golden Miller had, however, shot his bolt for a tilt at the National two weeks later where he unseated gerry Wilson at the fenc eafter Valentine’s. Thomond II never won another race.
It is an achievement that is very to be bettered or even equalled. Golden Miller has a record that had never been achieved before and hasn’t been since.
No self-respecting Jumps fan would ever compile a list of this nature without including Arkle, who has achieved deity status amongst Jumps fans the world over. The leggy bay horse owned by Anne Duchess of Westminster acquired celebrity status up and down the British Isles where fans would write to “Arkle, Ireland” and Royal Mail and their Irish equivalent would deliver!
At 212, his rating is the highest ever recorded for a steeplechaser. Only Flyingbolt, at 210, remarkably trained by the selfsame Tom Dreaper at the same time, came anywhere close. To put this in perspective, this year’s Gold Cup winner has a rating of 175, a full 37lbs inferior!
Arkle won 27 of his 34 starts, including a three-up of Gold Cups between 1963-66, 2 Hennessys (now Ladbrokes Trophy) under a welterweight of 12st 7lbs. In the 1966 Hennessy, he failed by just a length to beat Stalbridge Colonist, giving him 35lbs.
He remains the only horse in the history of our sport to have forced the handicapper to create two handicaps: one for races with Arkle entered, and one without.
“Himself” as he became known, injured himself hitting a guard rail in the 1966 King George, which forced retirement, and he succumbed to an arthritic condition in 1970.
Let’s not get too snobbish about our own racing. After all, there have been great racehorses all over the northern hemisphere, and in this list, we should include Flatterer. He was a specialist steeplechaser, and the first ever to win the title of American Champion Steeplechase Horse on a record of four occasions.
He had a six-year racing career from 1982 until 1988, and in that time he ran fifty-one times and won twenty-four races, including many of America’s most revered steeplechases. Yes, that includes the Colonial Cup, which he won four times.
Not only that, but he was also one of the few American-trained horses to compete successfully in the United Kingdom, where he ended up coming second in the Champion Hurdle in 1987. Trained by the grandfather of American trainers, the recently retired Jonathan Sheppard, Flatterer was sent over for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle in 1987. Closing with every stride, Flatterer might well have spoiled Nicky Henderson’s remarkable record with winner See You Then, for whom this was the middle leg of a three year domination of hurdling’s premier prize. In another 100 yards, Flatterer’s name would have been on the role of honour.
If his quality doesn’t quite make your cut, you can’t fault the verve and bravado of the Americans for their sportsmanlike tilt at one of the summits of the sport.
Desert Orchid was a celebrity in a way that no modern day horse has come close. He transcended the sport. He was an equine superstar, even Beyoncé couldn’t compare to this horse if she tried. He caught the eye of the public like no horse has before in the era of modern media.
He was popular because he was plucky, he liked to attack the field and he was grey. Even if you could barely recognize that colour in the trenchant conditions of his epic Gold Cup of 1989 over mudlark Yahoo.
Dessie made the King George Chase at Kempton his personal property, with four wins in 1986, 1988, ’89 and ’90. But undoubtedly his star performance was over a shorter distance of 2m in the Victor Chandler Chase (now Clarence House) at Ascot in 1989, where he beat Panto Price a head, giving him 22 lbs.
Trained by David Elsworth, he defined David’s career even though his ability transcended both codes of the sport. Finishing with an official rating of 187, he enjoyed plenty of charity work in his retirement and would parade before the King George until his latter years, looked after by his adoring lass, Janice Coyle.
Istabraq was a legend and had it not been for a foot and mouth disease outbreak back in 2001 cancelling that year’s Cheltenham Festival, it is very possible that Instabraq would have celebrated a fourth Champion Hurdle in a row. There has only been one other horse to win at five consecutive Festivals, and he’s already been mentioned, and was from another era.
Istabraq, a flat-bred son of Sadler’s Wells, was to have been owned and trained by John Durkan for the 1997 season, but tragically, John contracted leukemia and the horse was transferred to Aiden O’Brien. Sadly John never recovered, which is how J P McManus came by the horse, who arrived as a warm favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Novices Hurdle (now Ballymore) at the 1997 Festival. A length separated him from runner-up Mighty Moss in that event, but it was a more developed performer that arrived in Cheltenham 12 months later to win the Champion Hurdle by an extraordinary 12l from stable companion Theatreworld.
He returned to Cheltenham in 1999 to beat Theatreworld again, this time by just 3 1/2l, and was untroubled to return in 2000 to beat Hors la Loi III, a subsequent winner of the race, 4l to achieve an official rating of 176lbs.
He was a very popular horse, mostly because of his fighting attitude, and we all love a fighter. He also has an incredible ability to turn on the speed on at the right moment. I can’t recall any other horse being applauded for being pulled up, as happened when he returned to contest the Champion Hurdle of 2002 and pulled up in front of the stands.
Even though foot and mouth disease got in his way, he still holds records that many other top flight hurdlers can only dream of.
Dawn Run was the most successful mare in the history of National Hunt racing, and oh how we all loved her. She was the only horse to complete the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup double, which is an incredible feat considering how different these races are, and how they require such different attributes.
Not only that but in 1986 when she ran the Gold Cup, she set a record time. The festival and the whole of Ireland erupted, crowds invaded the winner’s enclosure, causing utter chaos. She was a legend, speaking up for the ladies, telling girls, women, and mares everywhere, you can be legendary. And in her jockey, the remarkable Jonjo O’Neill, there brought the most remarkable story as hard on the heels of retirement after that memorable day, he began a training career only to be diagnosed with cancer.
In her owner Charmian Hill, Dawn Run found almost a match for her redoubtable and gutsy will to win.
Her roll of honor may not be as decorated as some other, but for a mare to make such legendary history in the world’s toughest races is something no one can ever overlook.
Winner of 14 of his 18 chase starts, Sprinter Sacre was a two time winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase and amassed a remarkable £1.1m in prize money for owner Caroline Mould.
The champion of his generation, held in the same esteem as Desert Orchid 30 years earlier, he drew crowds to racecourses all over Britain and Ireland, or more specifically, Punchestown. Carefully campaigned by Nicky Henderson, who he assisted to Trainer’s Championships, his elegant looks and powerful gallop, supported by an adoring media, brought him a celebrity status if not quite as recognized as the grey before him, certainly enough to grace the front pages of the Racing Post on numerous occasions.
We all have a view on our favourites. So what are yours?