Alex Hammond's Cheltenham Festival Top 10

Alex Hammond

Friday 28 February 2020 15:02, UK

Jim Culloty (centre) with Best Mate and owner Jim Lewis
Image: Jim Culloty (centre) with Best Mate and owner Jim Lewis

Alex Hammond looks back on Cheltenham Festivals gone by and nominates her favourite 10 moments.

There's nothing quite like the Cheltenham Festival. I've accumulated some magnificent memories over the years, as a fan, broadcaster and participant. Here they are in reverse order...

10. Frenchman's Creek

There are some performances on the racetrack that are indelibly etched in your memory and the victory of Frenchman's Creek in the 2002 National Hunt Handicap Chase is one of them. He was one of Hughie Morrison's first big race winners and I bet to this day the trainer can't believe the manner of his victory. Paul Carberry was in the saddle and he was the type of horse Carberry excelled on, stealth like and ridden out the back of the field before making his challenge late. He cruised there on the bridle and cocked a snook at his rivals in the run in. He wasn't able to replicate that in several subsequent runs and that was his final career win. It was the sort of performance that's hard to forget and why would you want to?

9. One Man

Gordon Richards must have thought One Man and Cheltenham were not meant to be. As a grey he was a favourite with many and goodness me, he had talent, but a Cheltenham festival win eluded him. That was, until the 1998 Queen Mother Champion Chase. In an audacious move, his master trainer dropped him back to 2 miles and the move paid off. He was magnificent under Brian Harding and it would have been a travesty had he not got on the festival roll of honour. It was devastating to lose him just 16 days later at Aintree.

8. Cole Harden

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Cole Harden's win in the 2015 World Hurdle (as it was called then) was particularly memorable for trainer Warren Greatrex as the horse was his first festival winner and his first grade 1. However, for me, he sticks in my mind as one of my best punts at the meeting. I was keen on this horse for an age before the race (and told anyone that would listen, including you guys!) and couldn't believe what price he was going into it. He returned a 14/1 winner of the stayers hurdling crown. Mind you, if Lostintranslation wins the Gold Cup, he'll also make it into future top tens as I backed him last spring and am still clutching the metaphorical betting slip in my sweaty palms. He may even usurp Cole Harden!

7. Wichita Lineman

Anyone who had backed this horse to win the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase (now the Ultima Handicap Chase) owes AP McCoy a drink (it won't cost you much as he's teetotal). When you look back at the career of Sir Anthony, the performance of this horse in winning the race back in 2009 epitomises the 20 time champion jockey. The horse was lazy, but he wasn't allowed to be idle and it was one of the most tenacious riding performances I've seen as the pair got up to beat Maljima by a neck. It wasn't necessarily pretty, but I can confidently say, no one else would have won on the horse. Majestic.

6. Norton's Coin

Fairy tales are what sport is all about and for those of you that followed racing in the 90s there was no greater story than the win of Norton's Coin in the 1990 Gold Cup. My passion for racing had been ignited just before this and the victory for the small man on the biggest stage really inspired me. The horse was trained in Wales by a farmer called Sirrell Griffiths who trained with a permit and only had 3 horses. Norton's Coin began life in the point-to-point field before progressing to racing under rules, but as his 100/1 SP suggested, he was no superstar and with the likes of Toby Tobias, Desert Orchid, Bonanza Boy and the like in the Gold Cup field, he looked to have no chance. He hadn't read the script though and the horse won under Graham McCourt for an unlikely victory. My dream would be to have a runner at the festival, I can't imagine what it would be like to win the greatest prize of all.

5. Kauto Star

I think followers of our sport have been incredibly lucky in the past few decades because just as you think you have witnessed the career of the horse of a lifetime, something else comes along to blow you away not long after. Kauto Star was a superstar and to witness him winning back the Gold Cup in 2009 having won in 2007, but finishing runner up in 2008, was spectacular. He made history by becoming the first horse to regain a Gold Cup and to beat his stablemate, The Tank, Denman so decisively was no mean feat.

4. St Patricks Derby 2013

This should potentially come in at number one for personal reasons. However, my love of Cheltenham was cemented well before this experience thanks to some incredible horses, so I felt they deserved top billing. For that reason, in at number 4, was the money can't buy experience of actually riding at Cheltenham, at the festival. When I write that down, it almost seems incredulous that I did it. Granted, I gave the horse far too much to do as I was a little out of practice having not ridden in a race for many years, but looking back on it, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Fellow columnist Richard Fahey had kindly offered me a horse for the race, so it was little Mica Mika that was given the task of getting me round Prestbury Park in one piece. He was a gem….I temporarily misplaced the clock in my head! I think we finished 6th, so I apologise to all the folk that backed him, although to be fair, I don't think we'd have won even if I'd sat handier. My abiding memory of the race is travelling down the hill and taking in the iconic grandstand (and randomly a hot air balloon in the carpark beyond). My family and friends were there en-masse and I also made some special friends thanks to the race. Notably, fellow rider James Fenton, whom I kept in touch with and who has now introduced me to ownership with Willie Mullins through the Closutton Racing Club. So many fond memories and lifetime friendships made. Wonderful.

3. Best Mate

Speaking of friends, everyone needs a best mate. The equine Best Mate will live long in my memory. I was lucky enough to be in the winners enclosure after that iconic third victory and even the hardiest of racegoer would have been wiping back the tears as he was cheered back in. It wasn't just about the horse of course, the dynamic duo of trainer Henrietta Knight and husband Terry Biddlecombe made the story even more special and to produce this superb horse to perfection on three occasions was quite something.

2. Istabraq

And on that note, who remembers Istabraq? The 1998, 1999 & 2000 Champion Hurdle hero. Some say he was robbed of a fourth due to foot and mouth disease which saw the 2001 Cheltenham festival abandoned and I'd be inclined to agree. He was an idol of mine, I loved everything about him, and boy, what an engine he had. He made sure my love affair with national hunt racing grew even stronger and whilst it was heart-breaking to see Charlie Swan leading him back up the home straight after pulling up lame in the 2002 Champion Hurdle, he was home safe though, but it was the end of an era. I'll remember him fondly.

1. Desert Orchid

Without a doubt though, the horse who really captured my heart and sparked my obsession with the sport, was Desert Orchid. I was a school girl when he ploughed through the mud to win the 1989 Gold Cup and to see this warrior gain his well-deserved Blue Riband got me completely hooked. He was a legend in a legendary era. My teachers at school used to get frustrated that I doodled ponies on my work books and wrote poems about horses, but it turns out I was on the right path all along. They can 'blame' Dessie, as it was all his fault!