AN asterisk will always accompany the 2021 Cheltenham Festival records. Not the same asterisk, thankfully, that is an indelible part of the 2001 Festival, which doesn’t really need an asterisk as the records are just blank. But still a notation that marks the 2021 version down as different: great that it went ahead, but sad that the gates were closed. Even owners were not allowed in.
For Richard Thompson of Cheveley Park Stud, it was a phenomenal Festival. Three winners and two runners-up from six runners, including that fantastic run in defeat by A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup. Allaho in the Ryanair Chase, Sir Gerhard in the Champion Bumper, Quilixios in the Triumph Hurdle. Three Grade 1 wins. It was a shame that they couldn’t be there, but it was brilliant to have those winners.
It was the latest peak for Cheveley Park Stud in National Hunt racing, in an ascent that started on the ground in 2017.
Richard Thompson was drawn next to Willie Mullins at the Sir Peter O’Sullevan awards lunch that year. The conversation meandered as it progressed, but inevitably it made its way towards National Hunt racing in Ireland, the quality of the racing, the depth, the prize money.
“I came away from the lunch thinking that it would be great to have National Hunt horses trained in Ireland,” recalls Richard. “And that they should race in the Cheveley Park Stud colours. A select group of young horses, concentrate on quality, not quantity, and that they should be trained by the top trainers there.”
Richard discussed it with his late father David, and a plan was hatched.
Of course, the Thompson family were not strangers to National Hunt racing at the time. Famously, David bought Party Politics as a birthday present for his wife Patricia on the eve of the 1992 Grand National, five days before a general election. As well as winning the Grand National, the Politico gelding also went on to win the Greenalls Gold Cup and the Rehearsal Chase the following year, and he went back to Aintree three years after he had won the Grand National and, as an 11-year-old, finished second to Royal Athlete.
There were others. Roc De Prince finished down the field in Party Politics’ Grand National, but the Ted Walsh-trained gelding went to Punchestown three weeks later and won the Cox’s Cash & Carry Chase, the La Touche Cup, under Tony Martin. There was Sounds Strong and Bluedonix, and Baronet, who won the Scottish National in 1998. But they all raced in Mrs Thompson’s colours, pink with purple crossbelts.
And there were others who raced in David Thompson’s colours, blue with white crossbelts, the colours that Polar Falcon, Pivotal’s sire, carried to victory in the Haydock Sprint Cup and in the Lockinge Stakes. A smattering of National Hunt horses raced in David Thompson’s colours, including Gran Alba, originally a flat horse, sixth in Nashwan’s Derby, who won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in 1991.
“It was a new departure for Cheveley Park,” says Richard. “But my dad was up for it. Buy some young horses, good point-to-pointers, have them trained by the best trainers.”
Envoi Allen was bought the following February, and the others followed. Ontheropes, Malone Road, Ferny Hollow, Ballyadam, Sir Gerhard. Allaho and Quilixios were bought privately. They all went to either Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott.
None of those horses were cheap but, if the objective was to assemble a team of high-class young equine athletes who could go on to be successful at the highest level of National Hunt racing, that objective was realised spectacularly.
“We got A Plus Tard through Alex Elliott,” says Richard, “and it was Alex who suggested Henry de Bromhead. So we had Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead training our horses.”
The Premier League of National Hunt trainers.
“Obviously, the reasons for taking our horses from Gordon have been well documented,” he says thoughtfully. “It was just a decision that had to be made. There was a bigger picture at play. Gordon and I discussed it, and he understood that. But look, Gordon’s a young man and he’s a great trainer, and you never know what might happen in the future.”
The big-race wins started to roll. Envoi Allen and A Plus Tard and Ferny Hollow, Ballyadam and Quilixios and Allaho. Two winners at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019, two more in 2020, three in 2021.
“Cheltenham is unique. Leading in a winner at Cheltenham, into that winner’s enclosure. So, to have a Group 1 winner on the flat, like Inspiral in the Fillies’ Mile, it’s fantastic, and it’s great for the future of the stud. But in terms of atmosphere, a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, it’s a different experience. It’s the pinnacle.”
There was a National Hunt atmosphere too at Punchestown last December. Richard Thompson had never been to Punchestown before, he had never been to a National Hunt race meeting in Ireland before but, with big chances on the day, he took the opportunity to make his debut.
“Because I missed seeing Allaho at Cheltenham, it was great to see him winning the John Durkan Chase. And Ferny Hollow in the beginners’ chase. It was brilliant to see him back. And it was great that the family was there.”
As we know, Ferny Hollow is now out for the season. It’s gutting, a horse with his obvious talent, one of the most talented National Hunt horses in training, ruled out for the season after winning two chases, and that’s after being ruled out last season after winning just his maiden hurdle. Richard Thompson is pragmatic.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” he says. “It would be great to have him going to Cheltenham. But it’s horse racing. We are in this game long enough to know that there are disappointments like this. And all going well, we’ll have him back next season as good as ever.”
Even in Ferny Hollow’s absence, the Cheveley Park team for the Cheltenham Festival is looking strong again, headed up by A Plus Tard, who will be bidding to go one place better than he did last year in the Gold Cup.
“He was beaten in the Savills Chase this time,” says Richard, “but he was only beaten a short head and he ran a hell of a race. We’ll have to have a look at tactics for the Gold Cup. He has that acceleration, it’s just a case of when you use it.”
A seriously impressive winner of the Ryanair Chase last year, one of the most impressive winners at the Festival, Allaho is two for two over fences this season so far, and he is on track for the Ryanair Chase again.
“You can’t fault Allaho. He looked very good again in winning at Thurles last time. That two-and-a-half-mile trip seems to suit him well, and wouldn’t it be great to be a dual winner of the Ryanair Chase.”
Sir Gerhard won the Champion Bumper at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, and he was impressive in winning his maiden hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival this season. He was good again in Grade 1 company at the Dublin Racing Festival.
“We still have to decide in which race he is going to run, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or the Ballymore, but Willie is very happy with him, and we hope that he can go well in whichever race he goes for.”
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios has been beaten in his first two runs this season, but the ground was heavy at Limerick over Christmas when he hit the front at the second last flight and was just worn down close home by Teahupoo.
“We were pleased with Quilixios that day at Limerick, even though he didn’t win. He went past the winner, and he just came back at him. It was good to see him back in form though, and he could go for the Champion Hurdle.”
Envoi Allen did win the Grade 1 two-mile chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, but he wasn’t impressive in so doing.
“He made hard work of it all right,” says Richard, “but you can’t knock a horse for winning a Grade 1, and he’ll go straight to Cheltenham now, possibly for the Champion Chase.”
En Beton remains a possible for the National Hunt Chase, in which he could be joined by Ontheropes. Ballyadam possibly for the County Hurdle, Classic Getaway for the Ballymore Hurdle or the Albert Bartlett Hurdle. It’s a team that has width as well as depth.
“We have had 17 Grade 1 winners since March 2019,” says Richard. “And seven winners at the Cheltenham Festival. And this season, to have won a Betfair Chase at Haydock with A Plus Tard, and a John Durkan Chase with Allaho, and Grade 1 wins with Ferny Hollow and Envoi Allen, we’re very lucky that we have some very nice horses.”
In truth, Richard Thompson has been around nice horses all his life. He has seen all the peaks and troughs. A football fan since he was eight, he was chairman of Queens Park Rangers Football Club when he was just 24. His dad took him to his first race meeting in 1975 when he was 11, which was the year that David and Patricia Thompson bought Cheveley Park Stud. They built up the farm, from a 270-acre farm that was in receivership, to the major player in the racing and bloodstock industry that it is today.
“Music Boy won the Gimcrack Stakes that year, in 1975, and he went on to stand as a stallion at the stud. 1975 was the year too of the Grundy versus Bustino King George, that was incredible, and I was hooked from the start.”
The Cheveley Park Stud Group 1 winners flowed. Gay Gallanta and Exclusive and Regal Rose and Medicean. Pivotal was born on the farm in 1993, the first foal by David Thompson’s horse Polar Falcon, and he won the King’s Stand Stakes and the Nunthorpe Stakes – he raced just six times, winning four times – before going on, of course, to become a hugely successful stallion. Pivotal stood at Cheveley Park for 24 consecutive seasons, producing 32 individual Group 1 winners, and he was champion broodmare sire in Europe from 2017 to 2019. He was retired after the 2020 breeding season, and he died peacefully on the farm last month.
“Pivotal was an unbelievable horse,” says Richard. “We were so lucky to have had a horse like him.”
On the racecourse, on the flat, the 2021 season was a successful season for Cheveley Park Stud. Sacred won the Nell Gwyn Stakes early in the season and, after being beaten in the 1000 Guineas, dropped back down to seven furlongs in August and won the Hungerford Stakes. Indie Angel won the Duke of Cambridge Stakes at Royal Ascot, and Inspiral looked like an exceptional two-year-old. The John & Thady Gosden-trained filly raced four times in 2021 and won four times. She looked good in winning the Group 2 May Hill Stakes at Doncaster in September, and she looked even better in winning the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket in October.
“The fact that Inspiral is a homebred filly, by Frankel, makes it all the more special. She was great this year, and we are looking forward to seeing how she goes next year.”
Dutch Art, Mayson, Twilight Son and Ulysses stand at Cheveley Park, while Unfortunately stands at Springfield House Stud in Tipperary. And there’s a balance to be struck between maintaining the strength of the operation, and making it commercially viable.
“We put between 40 and 45 fillies into training every year,” says Richard thoughtfully. “So we need to sell as well in order that it doesn’t get out of control. We were happy with the mares that we sold at the breeding stock sales this year. You need a passion for this game, but you also need a business acumen, financial judgement. My dad had all of that.”
David Thompson passed away on December 29th, 2020.
“I miss my father lots,” says Richard. “I loved discussing everything with him, sport, racing, business. He was a great man. The last race he watched was the Savills Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival last year, when A Plus Tard got up close home to win it. That was an unbelievable race, it was an incredible performance by A Plus Tard, and it was fitting that it was the last race that my father ever watched.”
Looks like Cheveley Park remains in good hands.
“My mother is the boss, she is the chairperson. She is very involved with the stud, and I have taken more of an interest since my father passed away. I spend quite a lot of time watching and learning. My sons take a big interest too. It was great to have the family there at Haydock when A Plus Tard won, and again at Punchestown when Allaho won.
“We’re looking forward to Cheltenham now. Hopefully our horses will be competitive and, all going well, we’ll be there this year.”
More peaks to scale.?