In a couple of weeks we are likely to witness one of the classiest and most competitive Gold Cup’s for many years. With five horses vying to go off as race favourite, the chances of a shock result looks pretty remote.
A 100/1 winner of any race is incredibly rare. It did happen in the Grand National of 2009, when Venetia Williams sent out Mon Mome for a sensational victory. He proved to be a horse worth following when finishing third in the following year’s Gold Cup at 50/1.
However, one horse did take Cheltenham’s ‘Blue Riband’ as a 100/1 outsider, when in 1990 Norton’s Coin defeated, amongst others, Desert Orchid and Toby Tobias. It was one of racing’s most famous upsets.
Norton's Coin was trained by Sirrell Griffiths, a dairy farmer in Wales. He had started out in point to points and ran in hunter chases before running under rules in December 1988. He showed a liking for Cheltenham when finishing runner-up in the Cathcart Challenge Cup as an unconsidered 25/1 shot at his first Festival. His fondness for the track was confirmed when he returned in April to win the Silver Trophy Chase.
The following campaign began at Kempton in the King George when he was ridden for the first time by journeyman jockey Graham McCourt. It was a sharp step up in class, reflected in his starting price of 33/1. Whether outclassed, or simply not match fit, he failed to show any spark and trailed home last of the six runners, almost 40 lengths behind the winner Desert Orchid.
Further poor performances and then a spell of ill health meant he arrived at the Festival as a massive outsider for the 1990 Gold Cup. Indeed his trainer had looked for other targets but found he was ineligible for the Cathcart, and then missed the entry deadline for the Mildmay of Flete Handicap Chase. He was left with no option but to take on the ‘big guns’ in Cheltenham’s showpiece.
The early pace was set by Desert Orchid with McCourt holding up his mount towards the rear. Dessie had taken the race 12 months earlier and tried to dominate affairs in his usual aggressive front-running manner. Pressed by Ten Of Spades the two led with a circuit to run with Norton’s Coin handily placed in the chasing pack. By the time they had turned for home just four were in with a chance of winning, with McCourt still to ask his mount for maximum effort.
Ten Of Spades hit the deck at the second last when fading, leaving Norton's Coin, Toby Tobias and Dessie to fight it out. In a thrilling finish McCourt’s willing partner found more up the punishing hill getting the better of Toby Tobias by a length, with Desert Orchid a further three lengths back. A thrilled jockey was duly congratulated by his fellow jocks’ and returned to the winners’ enclosure to rapturous applause.
An overjoyed Sirrell Griffiths had driven the horsebox to the course hoping at best for Norton’s Coin to sneak a place at a course he clearly enjoyed, but never in his wildest dreams would have anticipated returning to Wales with the Gold Cup winner in his box. The trainer received his trophy from the Queen Mother who commented on how marvellous it was that he could win a Gold Cup when only training two or three horses.
Norton’s Coin returned to the Festival 12 months later, but fell at the sixth last when already struggling. He did return a month later and won his second Silver Trophy Chase. He retired in 1993 and spent the rest of his life at Griffiths' farm in Wales. He died at the age of 20 of a suspected heart attack when out in the field.
It’s fair to say that the horse had never quite reached the same heights as that famous win in 1990. However the jockey was to return to the Festival in 1992 and complete the much coveted double of Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.
McCourt rode more than 900 winners during his career with those two stunning wins at Cheltenham the highlight. The winning pair could not have been more different. Norton's Coin had been a 100-1 outsider, trained on a farm in Wales. His Champion Hurdle win came on Royal Gait, a horse carrying the colours of Sheikh Mohammed and trained by James Fanshawe, better known for winning top-class events on the Flat.
Royal Gait had won numerous valuable races on the Flat as a youngster before being sent hurdling as an eight-year-old. A leg injury had kept him out of action prior to the change of codes, but that certainly didn’t hold him back. He started out at Kempton in a novice hurdle and finished a promising second. He then won a couple of races at Nottingham before being thrown in at the deep end, and with only three hurdles outings under his belt took on the best in the Champion Hurdle.
Now a nine-year-old he was the oldest in the race and by far the least experienced. Nevertheless, he was sent off third favourite, and under an ultra-confident ride from Graham McCourt, cruised into contention turning for home. Hitting the front after the last, McCourt held off Oh So Risky in a thrilling finish. The horse became the first novice to win the race since 1956. Sadly Royal Gait was to die of a heart attack at Leopardstown later that year.
McCourt turned trainer after retiring from the saddle and had a period training with David Wintle in the Cotwolds. In 2008 he took up his current post as part of the team at Tweenhills Farm and Stud in Gloucestershire.