On Saturday the Elite Hurdle takes place at Wincanton Racecourse. The Grade 2 limited handicap was established in 1992, and first held at Cheltenham before moving to Wincanton in 1994. Yet to be won by a Champion Hurdle winner; though Rock On Ruby could break this trend; it has nevertheless been won by a number of high quality horses. Celestial Halo was successful in 2009 as a five-year-old, as was Zarkandar when winning in 2012.
Juveniles have a relatively poor record in the race. Far West was second in the Triumph hurdle of 2013 before filling the same place on his seasonal reappearance here last November. Balder Succes was third in the ‘Elite’ of 2012 as a four-year-old. However two stars of National Hunt racing did manage to crack it at the age of four.
Back in 2001 and 2003 Azertyuiop and Well Chief conquered Wincanton in November before famously becoming two of the best chasers of recent times.
The former was bred in France and won a hurdle at Auteuil in October 2000 before moving to Paul Nicholls’ stable. He clearly took an instant liking to Wincanton winning the Kingwell Hurdle as a novice. He was then aimed at the Festival's Triumph Hurdle, but unfortunately the foot and mouth crisis caused the meeting to be cancelled. His victory in the Elite Hurdle was his only win of the following season, before being sent over fences as a five-year-old. He won the 2003 Arkle Chase with wonderfully slick jumping a feature, and then went on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following year.
Well Chief started his racing career on the flat in Germany before being bought by David Johnson. He arrived in England and was sent to be trained by Martin Pipe. He won the Grade 2 Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton in 2003 before failing by a head to win the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham. His win in the ‘Elite’ came later that year, but after a disappointing run at Newbury he was switched to fences. After only one race over the larger obstacles he arrived at The Festival for the Arkle and defeated the future Gold Cup winner Kicking King in a thrilling finish.
Next began one of the greatest serious of encounters, between three of the very best two mile chasers. Well Chief, Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer were to meet on numerous occasions over the coming years. Victories were shared between the three in races such as the Game Spirit, the Celebration Chase and of course the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
But for jump racing fans there’s one clash that stands out above all others. The Tingle Creek of 2004 was quite simply one of the greatest races in living memory. Two Champion Chase winners went into battle with the reigning Arkle champion over Sandown’s thrilling two mile chase course. Moscow Flyer was ridden prominently with Azertyuiop, so slick over his fences, tracking the leader throughout. Well Chief had been slowly put into the race and as the three set sail for the second last only two lengths separated them. Prodigious leaps at the final two fences ensured that Jess Harrington’s star kept his younger challengers at bay. For all involved, any disappointment was tempered by the euphoria of having being part of such a momentous event.
Sadly Well Chief’s career was interrupted by a serious injury. This certainly played a huge part in him failing to win a Champion Chase, though his return in that race after a two year lay-off was nothing short of astounding. As a ten-year-old he got to within seven lengths of Master Minded, a performance which confirmed his status as one of the great two mile chasers.
From Elite Hurdle victories as four-year-olds, Azertyuiop and Well Chief went on to become jump racing royalty. That a limited handicap hurdle at Wincanton can be part of such a story is quite thrilling. You can never be sure when a future star is going to reveal himself.