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100 Golden Years... former Cheltenham Racecourse boss Edward Gillespie selects his three most memorable Gold Cup winners

All Areas > Sport > Horse Racing

Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Monday, 11th March 2024, 09:00

The  Cheltenham Gold Cup has produced so  many great stories over the years The Cheltenham Gold Cup has produced so many great stories over the years

Few would argue that the Cheltenham Festival is the greatest racing show on earth and the upcoming spectacle promises to be one of the best yet.

The big names will all be there of course – Willie Mullins, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson – but what makes this year’s four-day extravaganza just that bit more special is that it marks the 100th anniversary of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

And it’s been some 100 years, from the greats of yesteryear such as Golden Miller and Arkle to the rank outsiders such as Norton’s Coin, the 100-1 shot who stunned the racing world by winning the Gold Cup in 1990.

Since the 5-1 Fred Withington-trained Red Splash edged to victory in a  nine-strong field in 1924, National Hunt’s blue riband event has produced more twists and turns than a Dick Francis novel. 

Great winners, stunning upsets and thrills galore have ensured that the race over 3.2 miles remains a truly magical occasion.

There have been so many great stories but what sets racing – and the Gold Cup in particular - apart from other sports is that behind the headlines there is often another a story, a story that transcends sport itself.

One man who knows just how spellbinding the Gold Cup can be is Edward Gillespie, the boss at Cheltenham Racecourse for more than 30 years from 1980.

He was centre stage as many of the biggest and best stories unfolded and he can remember many of them as though they happened yesterday.

Ask him to name his three most memorable Gold Cup and he says: “All the 4’s – 1984, 1994 and 2004.”

Racing aficionados will know that those were the years when the Jenny Pitman-trained Burrough Hill Lad, the Francois Doumen-trained The Fellow, and Best Mate, owned by big Aston Villa football fan Jim Lewis, were the talk of the town and Gillespie said: “Jenny Pitman, Francois Doumen and Jim Lewis gave the race oxygen, they were incredible times.”

Gillespie, who still lives just a short gallop from Prestbury Park, took on the top job at the racecourse in May 1980 and his 32 years at the helm coincided with the Cheltenham Festival changing from being a big deal in the world of racing to becoming one of the major events on the UK sporting calendar.

“The total crowd over the three days in 1980 was 72,000,” he said. “By 1989 there were 80,000 on Gold Cup day alone to see Desert Orchid win.

“The sport exploded. When I started the Festival and the Gold Cup were just sporting events, but every year something extraordinary seemed to happen and that’s what captured people’s imagination.”

And the victories of the aforementioned Burrough Hill Lad, The Fellow and Best Mate certainly captured people’s imagination.

“In the 1970s and early 80s the Gold Cup was dominated by trainers from the north of England – men like Peter Easterby and Michael Dickinson,” said Gillespie.

“But when Burrough Hill Lad won in 1984 that was the first time that a Gold Cup winner was trained by a woman.

“Jenny Pitman was a game-changer. She was competing in a man’s world and she beat the best, it was seismic.”

Burrough Hill Lad saw off the challenge of the John Francome-ridden Brown Chamberlin in thrilling style and Gillespie continued: “I watched the race by Hunters Lodge, I was looking down the racecourse.

“I had a very different view to everyone else, they were on different sides of the course, it was so exciting.”

Pitman, a two-times Grand National winner, went on to win a second Gold Cup with the Gloucestershire-owned Garrison Savannah seven years later but it was that success with Burrough Hill Lad that left an indelible impression on Gillespie.

“She was electric for the sport,” he said. “She was outstandingly protective of her horses and she had such a big personality, she attracted publicity like no other female trainer.

“After Burrough Hill Lad’s win the Queen Mother asked to meet Jenny to congratulate her but Jenny said, ‘I can’t go, I’m just wearing my training rags!’ She was so self-deprecating.”

Gillespie did manage to persuade her to go, however, and he added: “I took her to the Royal Box, it was a very, very big moment, a huge moment for Cheltenham.”

Ten years later there was another huge Gold Cup moment when the French-trained The Fellow finally prevailed after a couple of very close seconds in previous years.

The Fellow, who was runner-up in both 1991 and 1992, was trained by the wonderfully talented and very charismatic Francois Doumen.

“In the early 90s we had a bit of a bromance with Francois,” said Gillespie. “He was incredibly cool, suave and very Gallic. He was your identikit Frechman.

“He loved us because the French authorities didn’t love him.

“We gave him everything to make him feel at home. We sent a car to pick him up at the airport, we gave him as many tickets as he wanted and we gave him a box at the racecourse.”

And the charm offensive certainly worked.

“I spent quite a lot of time trying to get the French trainers to show a bit of interest in the Festival,” Gillespie said.

“It was a wonderful era working with Francois, the media loved him.”

And it was a wonderful time for Doumen too because The Fellow also won the King George twice.

“He was just six when he ran at Cheltenham for the first time,” said Gillespie. “Most of the horses he was up against would have been eight, nine, 10, 11. French horses were so much more precocious, he was nine when he won the Gold Cup.”

And after twice being beaten by a shorthead, The Fellow finally got his just desserts, seeing off the favourite and 1993 winner Jodami by one-and-a-half lengths.

But while the defending champion had to settle for second place, that was only part of the Gold Cup story that day as Gillespie explains.

“You wouldn’t have believed everything that was going on, there were big fears that Jodami was going to be shot with a dart before the race,” he said.

“We worked really closely with trainer Peter Beaumont, Jodami had a security man overnight and when he left his stable.

“But the real fear was when he left the parade ring and walked out in front of the grandstand, that was when he was most vulnerable so we came up with the idea of him being accompanied by huntsmen riding either side of him.

“There may not have been a threat to him but for Jodami just to run his race, that was a big achievement.”

Ten years later there was another major achievement at the home of National Hunt racing when the Henrietta Knight-trained Best Mate completed a mind-boggling hat-trick of Gold Cup wins.

“That was so exciting,” said Gillespie. “No horse had won the race three times in a row since Arkle in the 1960s and it was often said that it would never happen again.”

Golden Miller won it five times in a row in the 1930s, of course, and just like that hero from yesteryear, Best Mate won the biggest race of all without running at the Festival as a novice chaser.

“The 2001 Festival was cancelled due to foot and mouth while Gold Cup day in 1931 was cancelled because the ground was frozen,” said Gillespie.

Gillespie rated Best Mate the best since Arkle – until the brilliant Kauto Star took centre stage with the first of his two Gold Cups in 2007 – but while Best Mate was obviously a champion horse it was everything that went with him that made him so appealing.

“The owner Jim Lewis was a big Aston Villa fan and he’d be wearing his claret and blue scarf and singing ‘Best Mate, Best Mate, Best Mate’, to the tune of a football song when he was receiving the trophy,” recalled  Gillespie.

And trainer Henrietta Knight was just as fascinating.

“She and Terry Biddlecombe were in the unlikeliest of relationships,” continued Gillespie.

“Terry had won the race as a jockey in 1967 on Woodland Venture but had well-documented problems after that.

“He’d been to hell and back while Henrietta was an ex-school mistress.

“Henrietta couldn’t watch that third race but once she knew that Best Mate had held off Sir Rembrandt to complete the hat-trick, she ran towards Terry and he ran towards her, both of them were blowing kisses to each other.”

Jim Culloty was the successful jockey on all three occasions with Best Mate and is someone who Gillespie describes as a “magical Irishman”.

“All four helped to make the race bigger than it would have been,” added Gillespie.

Best Mate was an odds-on favourite for that 2004 race but there were certainly fears that the Michael Hourigan-trained Beef Or Salmon was going to be a party-pooper.

“Fortunately that didn’t happen,” said Gillespie. “There aren’t too many Gold Cup party-poopers, I think in my 32 years at the racecourse I could have picked any one of 25 races as my most memorable.

“Mind you, imagine what it would have been like if Yahoo had beaten Desert Orchid…”

Dessie’s win in 1989 will be remembered with huge fondness by everyone who was there of course, as will Dawn Run’s Gold Cup success in 1986.

“That was epic,” said Gillespie. “Dawn Run was amazing, she’d won the Champion Hurdle two year earlier.

“Jonjo O’Neill was a great jockey but unlike some of the other Gold Cups that was just a racing story.”

Trainer Paddy Mullins took the plaudits that day but a year later it was Gillespie and his racecourse team who were taking the Gold Cup day plaudits, even though the big race was won by The Thinker.

“We had to delay the racing after the first race for two hours because of snow,” explained Gillespie.

“But we managed to get every race run that day, that was our biggest achievement.”

Racecourse bosses will be hoping for some decent weather this year, of course, so how does Gillespie see this year’s Gold Cup going?

“I’d be very disappointed if Galopin Des Champs didn’t become one of my 4’s,” he said.

“I happened to see Galopin run in his very first novice chase on TV and couldn't believe how perfectly balanced he was. It was no surprise he won last year.

“He could well be the next of that tiny elite to be spoken of with Arkle and Best Mate. Just a shame his name doesn't roll off the tongue quite like the other two!”

Galopin Des Champs is trained by Willie Mullins and his win 12 months ago was the eighth time in 10 years that an Irish-trained horse has won the Gold Cup.

“It’s frightening,” admitted Gillespie. “I’d like the Brits to win, I’d like to keep the prizemoney at home.”

Now that would be a good story.

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