What does it take to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the world’s most prestigious National Hunt race, and the most lucrative non-handicap chase in the UK with a total prize pool of almost half a million pounds. With Cheltenham betting getting under way, a lot is at stake for the contending race horses, jockeys and trainers.
Over a quarter of a million pounds goes to the first past the post, but what does it take to join the ranks of Cheltenham Gold Cup winners? We have analysed every participant in the last 20 races to find out.
Which trainers have been the most successful in the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
While Irish-trained horses have won just nine of the last 20 races, with the other 11 seeing one trained in the UK take first place, those schooled across the Irish Sea are currently in the ascendancy.
While Britain-based trainers Henrietta Knight (2002 to 2004) and Paul Nicholls (2007 to 2008) each racked up three consecutive wins in the early part of the 21st century, seven of the last 10 Cheltenham Gold Cup winners have had an Irish trainer, including five of the last six.
Willie Mullins enjoyed back-to-back wins with Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020 before Henry De Bromhead’s Minella Indo spearheaded an all-Ireland front three in 2021, relegating Al Boum Photo into third.
That was the second Gold Cup in the last six years which saw three Irish-trained horses cross the line before the rest of the field and continued a trend which has seen them place 50% more often than British-trained ones in the last decade: 18 to 12.
While Mullins has enjoyed some wins recently, there are other trainers with a better overall record at the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Of the 11 active trainers who have provided at least five race entries since the turn of the century, there are seven with a higher proportion of winners.
Fellow Irishman Gordon Elliott was behind Don Cossack’s win in 2016 – his Gold Cup debut as a trainer – and has only worked with four other participants since, giving him a one-in-five success rate.
Among trainers with at least 10 entries to their name, Nicky Henderson has been the most successful with a third of them finishing third or better (six out of 18). Henderson has also seen a high proportion of horses fail to complete the race though.
Few trainers have a better record than Jonjo O’Neill in this regard, with nine of his 10 students lasting the full distance.
How often does one of the favourites win the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
In the last 20 runnings of the Cheltenham Gold Cup it’s been rare for an outsider to cross the line first. The favourite – based on starting price – has won nine of those 20 races and a further seven have seen the second or third favourite triumph, so scouring the lower half of the race card doesn’t appear to be a worthwhile investment in your time.
However, three of the four winners who started the race outside the three shortest-price contenders have done so in the last five years, so perhaps the established order has been upset?
What age have Cheltenham Gold Cup winners been?
With the exception of a six-year-old Long Run in 2011 – one of Nicky Henderson’s two winners to date – no horse under the age of seven has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup since 1963. All but five of the last 20 champions have been either seven or eight, with the remainder being nine years old.
It is rare for horses younger than seven or older than 11 to even enter the race, with just 12 out of the 279 competitors in the last 20 runnings falling outside the seven to 11 age bracket. While eight-year-olds have won more races, including three of the last four, the success of this cohort is boosted by their sheer numbers.
Seven-year-olds have a better success rate overall, with more than a third of entrants this age being one of the first three to cross the line. The gruelling nature of the Gold Cup favours younger competitors, with only around one in 10 horses aged over nine years managing to place.
Does Official Rating matter in the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
The 2021 winner Minella Indo began the race with an Official Rating (OR) of 164, which coincidentally has been something of a magic number for the Gold Cup. Of the last 20 winners, 18 have had a rating of 164 or higher, including 14 of the last 15. The exception was surprise 20/1 winner Lord Windermere in 2014.
On average, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winners during the last two decades have had an OR of 170, while those of horses finishing second or third have typically been in the mid-160s. While the best-rated horse won’t always win, this demonstrates that there is some science behind the rating system.
Does form matter in the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is not one of those races in which form goes out of the window. Of the last 20 champions, 15 had also won their previous race and 12 had won at least three of their most recent five.
Therefore it makes sense to pay attention to the horses’ recent performances rather than expecting a sudden spark of inspiration on the day.
Does experience of the course matter at the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
Cheltenham racecourse itself presents a formidable challenge, with the final three furlongs forming a “hill” that rises by 10 metres before the finish line. This creates an exhausting end to the race for horses that have already covered almost three miles by this point.
Past experience of this climb has proven advantageous. While only two of the last 12 Cheltenham Gold Cup winners had competed in this specific race before, 10 of them had competed at Cheltenham at least twice previously.