The Irish have a love affair with the Cheltenham Festival. One of the reasons why it is held in such affection amongst horseracing fans in Ireland is because they also have a long history of training and riding winning horses. This article will take a look at some of the many horses that the Irish have produced that have taken Cheltenham by storm.
One of the famous moments of Irish glory at Cheltenham came in 1964, when the best chaser in the whole of the country – Arkle – went head-to-head with the equally fine British horse Mill House for the Gold Cup.
Mill House had won it the previous year and was the dominant force in his division, but the Irish contender, trained by Tom Dreaper, caught him at the second fence from last and then stormed past him.
The win was followed by two more Gold Cups, as well as the Irish Grand National and the King George, which earned Arkle a place in the hearts of racing fans that no other horse has ever been able to take away.
Another memorable Irish win came in the middle of a fallow period during the 1980s. The struggles during that decade eventually saw racecourses in Ireland switch to using the firmer fences found at Cheltenham so that the horses could compete better, but Jonjo O’Neill riding Dawn Run produced a wonderful win at the 1986 Festival in the middle of that era.
O’Neill rode the great mare to win the Gold Cup that year – and she remains the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Her Gold Cup success was dramatic as Dawn Run led from the start, but was pressured by Run And Skip and made mistakes at both the water jump and final ditch that put his chances at risk. As the horses moved into the downhill third last, the other three contenders were Run And Skip, Wayward Lad and Forgive ‘n’ Forget.
Dawn Run was actually back in third place when they approached the final fence, only for Forgive ‘n’ Forget to run out of stamina. O’Neill moved his horse into the outside lane and passed Wayward Lad just yards away from the finishing post, at the end of one of the all-time great Gold Cup races.
Irish trainers began to find more consistent joy at Cheltenham once the 1980s were over. he year 2006 proved to be a particularly satisfying year for the nation as the first, second and third placed horses in the Gold Cup were all trained there. The winner was War Of Attrition, ridden by Conor O’Dwyer and trained by Mouse Morris, with the win coming in thrilling fashion. Having been placed behind the pacesetters for much of the race, the horse finally moved into the lead on the back straight, before suddenly leaving his nearest rival Hedgehunter for dust on the final stretch. The fact that the race took place on St Patrick’s Day only made the victory sweeter for Irish racing fans.
The almost total dominance of Cheltenham by the Irish has continued since then, with 14, 12 and 13 winners between 2013 and 2016, before the 2017 event set a new record with an astonishing 19 wins out of 28 races.
This year could be shaping up as another strong one with Presenting Percy, trained by Pat Kelly, listed as 3/1 favourite for the Gold Cup. He warmed up by winning the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park.
Other Cheltenham tips to watch out for include Honeysuckle, who is the 2/1 hot favourite to win the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle held on Ladies Day and has triumphed in her last three races.
Joseph O’Brien is the trainer of 2/1 Triumph Hurdle favourite Sir Erec, who will be hard to beat.
The Cheltenham Festival is a highlight of the calendar and there is plenty of reason to believe that this year can be another glorious one for Ireland.