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When the Mackeson Brewery agreed to sponsor a new extended two-mile chase at Cheltenham in 1960 they can have had little idea that it would turn into one of the National Hunt season’s most competitive handicaps. Indeed, after only five years, the future of the Mackeson Gold cup was already in considerable doubt.
In the early days it looked as though the race might be a benefit for Irish trained horses, as the Tom Draperâ€™s Fortria, ridden by Pat Taaffe won two of the first three races. On each occasion Fortria was carrying 12 stone, but weight has never been a barrier to success in this race.
Fortria blazed a trail that many have followed since, going on to success at the Cheltenham Festival following year. In his case it was victory at the 1961 Champion Chase, and in both the following seasons he was runner-up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, to Mandarin in 1962, and the great Mill House in 1963.
Dunkirk was an exciting front runner of the 1960s, and lined up in the 1965 renewal of the Mackeson as the champion two-mile chaser. Peter Cazalet’s charge was burdened with 12 stone seven pounds, but such was the class of this eight-year-old that he was able to give 31 pounds and a half length beating to the runner-up Choreographer.
In the following year the Mackeson went north for the first time when County Durham trainer Arthur Stephenson sent Pawnbroker down to head home a field of five, the smallest in the history of the race. After three years of single figure fields, the race distance was increased to two miles, four and a half furlongs, and has been run over that distance ever since. The future of the Mackeson Gold Cup was secured.
Charlie Worcester was the first winner over the new distance, ridden by Josh Gifford, who holds the distinction of being the only person to both ride and train a winner, although it would be 26 years before he completed that feat.
The next four years saw the trophy in Fred Rimell’s cabinet at Kinnersley as he sent out Jupiter Boy (1968), Chatham (1970) and dual winner Gay Trip (1969 + 1971). In between his two victories, Gay Trip had won the Grand National, and in the 1970 Mackeson he was well in contention at the second last before slipping on landing and coming home last of the 13 finishers.
Red Candleâ€™s win in 1972 off the feather weight of 10 stone gave the Mackeson its only brush with the pop music charts. In 1960 David Spencer had become the first Welshman to have a number one hit with a song called “Tell Laura I Love Her”. Before the song was released he chose a stage name. “I’d always liked the name Ricky and when looking for a surname to go with it, one day I was at horseracing meeting when I noticed the trainer of one of the horses was a Colonel Vallance, which I immediately liked and so, Ricky Valance was born.” It was that same Colonel Ricky Vallance who was the trainer of Red Candle.
Following Tom Draper’s two early victories Ireland had to wait until 1973 for further success. In that year County Antrim trainer Brian Lusk sent over Skymas, and the gelding was to return to the Festival to take the Champion Chase in both 1976 and 1977. Since then the Cup has only crossed the Irish sea on a further two occasions, when Bright Highway triumphed in 1984 for Michael Oâ€™Brien and then two years ago when Edward Oâ€™Grady’s Tranquil Sea scored a comfortable success.
Early in the 1980s the legendary Fred Winter set his mark on the Mackeson Gold Cup. In 1982 Richard Lindley rode Fifty Dollars More, who in the following year became the first of seven horses to win both this race and following monthâ€™s December (Boyle sports.com) Gold Cup. Winter also trained Half Free in 1984 and 1985 to become the third dual winner of the Mackeson, and the first to taste victory in successive years.
When Declan Murphy rode Bradbury Star to win the 1993 renewal, trainer Josh Gifford completed his quarter of a century double, and the now successful (ex) jockey and trainer followed up the next year, with Bradbury Star this time being ridden by Philip Hide.
Grey horse Cyfor Malta was only a five-year-old when in 1998 he won what had now become the Murphy’s Gold Cup. It was to be another four years and a new name for the race, the Thomas Pink Gold Cup, before he became the last horse to double up in the race. Cyfor Malta was trained by Martin Pipe, and their 2002 victory was the sixth of eight wins for Pipe. His first victory had come as early as 1987 with Beau Ranger, but it is his dominance from 1996 through to 2005, when he won seven of the 10 renewals which is largely responsible for leading trainers Philip Hobbs and Nicky Henderson having had just one win each, and for Paul Nicholls to be still looking for his first succcess in the race.
Paddy Power took over sponsorship in 2003, and they have been blessed with victories by Celestial Gold (2004), Our Vic (2005) and Exotic Dancer (2006). But surely it is the 2008 renewal, when Imperial Commander announced himself as one of the top chasers of the day, which is the highlight of their involvement in the race. After missing almost the whole of the previous season, Imperial Commander was very well handicapped. On his first run for 337 days, the seven-year-old made the most of his opportunity, tanking down the hill and taking the last two fences in his stride to give Nigel Twiston-Davis a second win in the race.
What does Saturday have in store for us? Will Mon Perrain give Paul Nicholls a first success? He is younger than most winners, but the race is often won by a well fancied horse. Is Philip Hobbs going in mob handed to try and get a first win since Joint Sovereignty in 1989? Or will there be a new trainer, Alan King or David Bridgwater leading in the winner? At 3.15 on Saturday afternoon weâ€™ll know the answer.