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The Cheltenham Gold Cup – the pinnacle of National Hunt racing

March 16, 2012

The Holy Grail of jumps racing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, will be run in the early hours of Saturday morning Australian time.

The Grand National, a handicap held at Aintree (near Liverpool) four weeks from Saturday, attracts public attention to National Hunt racing at a greater level. But it is the Cheltenham Gold Cup which is the race for the purists. In many ways, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is akin to the Cox Plate of jumps racing – just like the Grand National is similar to the Melbourne Cup in terms of reach.

Most importantly, for me anyway, this is the first stop on The Hawk’s Global Horse Racing Tour. I’ve heard much about the race before, especially in recent years with some of the epic battles that have taken place. But in the knowledge I would be witnessing this grand race, I’ve attempted to learn more ahead of my trip.

First run in 1819 as a flat race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup in its current form was first run in 1924.

Many great jumpers have graced the course at Prestbury Park over the years. The legendary Arkle, voted as the most popular galloper of all time by the readers of the Racing Post, won this race on three occasions in the 1960’s. He was so heavily supported at his third victory, he started 10/1 on ($1.10).

In 1989, it was Desert Orchid who recorded one of the most famous victories in the race. A bold frontrunner, he had excelled at two miles and on firm ground. Consistent rain and snow had made the track a bog, he was stepping up almost 2000m beyond his best trip and he was attacked for the lead mercilessly. He was clearly headed and looked defeated, but he showed great tenacity to win the race named the greatest ever by the Racing Post.

2002, 2003 and 2004 saw Best Mate emerge to win three years in a row. An incredibly tough galloper, he was revered by racing fans. His death in a race in 2005 made front page news in Britain and, in Europe especially, it overshadowed the other big racing story of that day – the third Melbourne Cup victory of Makybe Diva.

In recent times, it has been the rivalry between stablemates Kauto Star and Denman which has captivated punters. Both trained by Paul Nicholls, it was Kauto Star who first emerged in 2007. His first clash in the Gold Cup with Denman came the following year when Denman usurped him. But in 2009, Kauto Star won once more, defeating Denman by a large margin. 2010 looked a clash of the titans again, but Kauto Star fell and Denman couldn’t reel in Imperial Commander. Last year, neither Kauto Star nor Denman could catch Long Run, who won dominantly.

Which brings us to this year’s edition of the blue riband. Kauto Star lines up for a sixth time in an attempt to join the likes of Arkle and Best Mate as three time winners of the event. His participation was only confirmed earlier this week after he suffered a horrific fall on the training track. Despite the setback, he is likely to start a clear second favourite.

However, it is last year’s winner Long Run who will start favourite, despite finishing behind Kauto Star in two runs at the end of last year. He comes off a last start victory over third favourite Burton Port. Outside of the top three, there doesn’t look to be a whole lot of depth.

For someone who has a limited knowledge of National Hunt racing, it is the gallopers like Kauto Star who revive interest. These are the horses who draw people to the sport. For me, a horse lover, I’ve loved following Kauto Star even though I hardly watch jumps racing.

Therefore, I’ll be cheering for Kauto Star tomorrow as I witness one of the great races of the world.

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