Cheltenham Gold Cup history
The Cheltenham Gold Cup was first run in its present incarnation in 1924, but its history dates back to late Georgian England, when horseracing was newly fashionable in the then-trendy spa town of Cheltenham.
A horse called Spectre won the first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1819, winning 100 guineas for his owner. The race differed from today’s Cheltenham Gold Cup in many ways.
For starters, the original Gold Cup race was held on the flat, not over jumps – steeplechasing at Cheltenham still being some two decades in the future. The race was also held over a much shorter two-mile distance.
That first Cheltenham Gold Cup race was held on Cleeve Hill, not far from the present Cheltenham racecourse at Prestbury Park, and was held in July, at the height of the flat racing season, unlike today when it is run at the climax of the National Hunt season in late March.
The modern Cheltenham Gold Cup
The story of the modern Cheltenham Gold Cup dates back to the opening of a renovated Cheltenham Races in 1902 – the first race meeting at Prestbury Park that resembled the modern Cheltenham Festival – and the addition of a four-mile National Hunt steeplechase to the Cheltenham Festival in 1904.
The National Hunt Chase helped give the Cheltenham Festival status as a blue riband event in the jumps racing season and, although it overshadowed the Gold Cup up to the 1930s, paved the way for the public’s love of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was run for the first time as a three-and-a-quarter-mile steeplechase in 1924.
5/1 chance Red Splash won the first Gold Cup proper, winning £685. The horse was only five years old at the time; no younger horse has ever won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and only two other five-year-olds – including the legendary Golden Miller – have ever won the race.
“The Miller” and the Cheltenham Gold Cup
No Gold Cup was held in 1931 or 1937, but the five renewals in between have gone down in folklore as the most remarkable stretch of Cheltenham Gold Cup history.
A five-year-old Golden Miller – owned by the equally renowned Dorothy Paget, the “Queen of the Turf” who would bet £10,000 in Depression-era currency on one of her many thoroughbreds without a second thought – won the 1932 Cheltenham Gold Cup at odds of 13/2. (Another of Paget’s horses, Insurance, won the Champion Hurdle that year; she’d bought both horses for a combined sum of £12,000).
Golden Miller followed up by winning the 1933 Gold Cup as well; this time he was favourite, as he was in 1934, 1935 and 1936 – and the betting public’s faith was repaid each time.
In 1934 “The Miller” completed possibly the most astonishing double ever in National Hunt horseracing by winning both the UK’s most prestigious steeplechases, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Aintree Grand National, in the same year.
This amazing sequence of five straight wins in the gruelling steeplechase is unlikely to be matched ever again although Cottage Rake in the 1940s, Arkle in the 1960s and Best Mate in the 1990s have all rewarded punters with three wins in a row.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup in the postwar years
Horseracing boomed again after the Second World War, and Cottage Rake’s wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup helped boost its popularity with punters. Its role as an “Irish raider” – its trainer, a young Vincent O’Brien, would go on to become one of the world’s most successful Flat trainers – was to popularise the race, and the Cheltenham Festival itself, with the Irish. A sizeable contingent of horseracing fans from Ireland is now part of the Festival's fabric.
Arkle was another horse whose Gold Cup wins added to the race’s status as the greatest betting event in the horseracing calendar. His third victory in 1966 was at eye-watering odds of 10/1 on, such was the extent to which the betting public staked their money on the horse.
Best mates and punters' friends in the Cheltenham Gold Cup
Those odds make Desert Orchid look a positive outsider when he was sent off at 5/2 in the 1989 Gold Cup. In fact the grey was a hugely popular favourite, and his subsequent victory secured his place in the pantheon of Cheltenham Gold Cup heroes.
No Cheltenham Gold Cup was run in 2001 because of restrictions over the transportation of animals during a national foot-and-mouth epidemic. The 2002 renewal saw the first of three wins by Best Mate, who was undoubtedly a punter’s friend during the early years of this century.
The favourite won again in 2007, when Kauto Star was sent off at odds of 5/4 and won the race by two-and-a-half lengths. The same horse was odds-on favourite in 2008 but was unable to prevent a brilliant performance by his rival Denman, who destroyed the field in a glorious race that reminded horseracing and betting fans exactly why they love the Cheltenham Gold Cup.