The highlight of this weekend’s racing is the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham, now known as the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have a terrific recent record in the race. Both have won the event three times in the past 11 years. Poquelin won in 2009 and 2010, whilst between victories managed a terrific second to Albertas Run in a Ryanair Chase. Unioniste became the youngest winner of the race for Team Ditcheat in 2012, when successful as a four-year-old.
Nicky Henderson provided the winner in 2011 when Quantitativeeasing got the better of Medermit in a thrilling finish. Iris Royal ridden by Mick Fitzgerald lifted the prize for Seven Barrows in 2003. But it was the 2002 event that signalled the arrival of one of Cheltenham’s equine heroes.
Fondmort had ended his novice chase campaign finishing down the field in the Arkle behind the mighty Moscow Flyer and then behind Armaturk at Aintree in the Martell Novices’ Chase. Both defeats were over an inadequate two miles, and just eight months later he was back at Cheltenham destroying a decent field in the December Gold Cup over 2m5f.
Still only a six-year-old, the victory was the beginning of a wonderful period for the horse, which saw him return again and again to Cheltenham, producing consistently brilliant performances. He won the following season’s Paddy Power Gold Cup by eight lengths, and later only just failed to give Tikram two stone in the Mildmay Of Flete Challenge Cup at the Festival in March 2004. At Cheltenham a year later, aged nine, he found Paul Nicholls’ terrific chaser Thisthatandtother half a length too good in the Festival Trophy Chase.
But it was as a ten-year-old that he was to achieve his most memorable victory at jump racing’s greatest festival. After being brought down when still travelling strongly three out in the December Gold Cup of 2005, he returned to Cheltenham in March to contest the Ryanair Chase.
Fondmort was sent off joint favourite along with the AP McCoy ridden Impek. Travelling down the hill McCoy’s mount looked to be cruising, but approaching the second last ‘Fitzy’ drove his horse to the front. In one of the great commentaries from Simon Holt he described a glorious Festival finish: “Fondmort, a great jump for Fitzgerald, oh he really tried, what a generous horse this is, Lacdoudal is running on like a lion, he’s getting a little lonely in front, Impek and Lacdoudal are chasing, can he hold on….?“ Pure theatre from the voice of horse racing, and thankfully Fondmort did hold on for a career best success.
Later that year the horse was fighting for his life after breaking his pelvis on the gallops. Nicky Henderson's ten-year-old pulled up distressed after completing a routine workout prior to another shot at the Paddy Power Gold Cup. A concerned trainer said: "He had a wobbly time this afternoon but he's stabilised better again this evening. It's going to be a long night and a long few days as well, I fear." He went on to say: “Most horses wouldn't have got this far but his strength and character is fantastic and he is sensible enough to stand still.”
Thankfully the horse recovered, though was never able to race again. Mick Fitzgerald when interviewed after that famous Ryanair win said: “He is one of those horses you’d pull yourself out of your deathbed for. He means everything to me. When I was lying in bed with a broken neck I never thought I’d make Cheltenham never mind have a winner. AP was trying to pull the race to suit himself so I kicked on and went past him. This fella is definitely one of my favourite horses of all time.”
He certainly thrilled the crowds at many a packed Cheltenham meeting. For me that Ryanair Chase of 2006 stands out as one of my favourite Festival races. It proved to be the pinnacle of a wonderful racing career, for a Cheltenham hero.
On Saturday the December Gold Cup will thrill a packed Cheltenham crowd once again. The likelihood of uncovering another star to match the wonderful Fondmort is slim. But there’s always a chance, and the presence of the Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Caid Du Berlais certainly gives us hope.