The two I could recall were Willie Wumpkins, who won the race three years in a row in its earlier guise of the Coral Golden Hurdle. I’m old enough to have seen those successes, which helps enormously. Willie Wumpkins was aged 11, 12 and 13 when he won the race, came from a small stable (Jane Pilkington) and was ridden by amateur Mr Jim Wilson. It all made for a jolly story. Backing the winner, which I managed to do last year, when Cape Tribulation won for trainer Malcolm Jefferson also helps fix a horse in the mind.
I doubt the Pertemps Final will ever gain a higher profile at the Festival, which is a shame, because it is a truly egalitarian race. For several jockeys, like Paul Williams, who rode Malcolm Jefferson’s first winner in the race, Tindari, in 1994, the race has provided a rare moment in the spotlight. Over the years, plenty of smaller trainers have tasted success, though strangely, since the Pertemps Group took over sponsorship in 2002, the names of O’Neill (3 times), Pipe (twice) and Twiston-Davies have appeared on the winners' list, perhaps signalling more interest from bigger yards.
Participation of their horses hasn’t made successful betting easy, as the race winner’s SP since 2000 has averaged 20/1. That period has seen only one winning favourite, and one winner returned at single figure odds, Inching Closer in 2002 at 6/1.
The race does now seem to be attracting more interest these days. As recently as the 2009-10 season, there were just eight qualifying races, and any horse that had taken part in one of those was eligible for the final. This season, the first of a new three-year sponsorship deal with the Pertemps Group, there are 20 qualifying races. For the first time the series visits Scotland and Wales, with qualifiers at Musselburgh and Chepstow joining those in England, Ireland and France.
There’s a significant change, though, in the criteria to run in the final. Only horses that finish in the top eight of a qualifier will be able to do so, a move welcomed by Jefferson. He said, “I think it will make the final more competitive because your horse will have to be at their best to get in the top eight, as these handicaps are very competitive. It makes it difficult to try to get on top of the handicap because if you aren’t high enough in the ratings now, you just don’t get in.”
This afternoon we’ll know eight horses that might be back at Cheltenham in March, after the first of the 20 qualifiers, which takes place at the first day of racing there this season.