Thursday 12 June 2014

Once, Twice, Three Times a Champion

The Champion Hurdle is, of course, a mainstay of the Cheltenham Festival where, alongside the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the World Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, it is one of the ‘championship’ races. The first recognisable Cheltenham Festival took place in 1911, but the Champion Hurdle was not inaugurated until 1927. Just five horses have won the Champion Hurdle three times and, coincidentally, all five won in three consecutive years.

Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), trained in Ireland by Vincent O’Brien, didn’t see a racecourse until the age of six because of restrictions imposed during World War II, but that didn’t stop him from winning the Champion Hurdle by 6 lengths at the first attempt in 1949. He returned to Prestbury Park in 1950, once again forging clear up the infamous Cheltenham ‘hill’ to win by 4 lengths after National Spirit made a mistake at the final flight and completed the hat-trick in 1951 when the same rival, who’d led over the second last, fell at the last. Not bad for a horse described by Horse and Hound as a ‘mean, ragged-looking animal’.

Festivalgoers didn’t have to wait long for a new champion because Sir Ken (1952, 1953 and 1954), trained by Willie Stephenson, also won at the first attempt in 1952. A notoriously vicious character, who had apparently fought and killed a paddock companion, he showed a good turn of foot to beat Noholme and Approval on that occasion and won again in 1953, despite being forced to make his own running. Even when he was considered past his best in 1954, he was sent off 4/9 favourite for the Champion Hurdle and, despite making hard work of winning, duly obliged to take his place in Cheltenham Festival history.

Persian War (1968, 1969 and 1970) won the Champion Hurdle three times despite the interference of his errant owner, the late Henry Alper. Effectively rescued and nursed back to health by Chepstow trainer Colin Davies after an abortive spell in France, Persian War won the Schweppes Hurdle at Newbury under 11st 13lb a month before winning his first Champion Hurdle in 1968. A fractured femur kept him off the course until February of the 1968/69 season, but he recovered sufficiently to win the Champion Hurdle again, by 4 lengths, landing bets worth £25,000 for his owner. The following season, Alper insisted that Persian War ran on the Flat at Newbury, on very firm ground, with the result that he jarred a joint and was lame for over a month. Nevertheless, he returned to Cheltenham to take his third and final hurdling crown in 1970, resisting the challenge of old rival Major Rose.

Known to his detractors as ‘See You When’ because of his notoriously fragile legs, which restricted him to sporadic racecourse appearances, See You Then (1985, 1986 and 1987), was apparently another brute who would think nothing of taking a chunk out of anyone who came within range. The son of Derby winner Royal Palace won the Champion Hurdle by 7 lengths in 1985 and, despite a career that lasted only six further starts, won again by 7 lengths in 1986 and again, by 1½ lengths, in 1987. After his third success, trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Steve Smith-Eccles both conceded that he ‘blew up’ on the run-in, but such was his class that he got away with it.

The most recent three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, Istabraq (1998, 1999 and 2000), joined Aidan O’Brien after his intended trainer, John Durkan, was diagnosed with leukaemia. John Durkan had already told owner J.P. McManus that Istabraq would win the Royal Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle in 1997, which he did, and Aidan O’Brien predicted that he would ‘destroy them’ in the Champion Hurdle in 1998, which he did, winning by 12 lengths. He won again in 1999 and 2000, recording the fastest time ever on the latter occasion and was odds-on favourite for the 2001 renewal before the entire Cheltenham Festival was abandoned because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

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