Pat Taaffe

Pat Taaffe  The late Pat Taaffe, who died in 1992 at the age of 62, will be long remembered as the jockey of Arkle – widely acknowledged as the greatest steeplechaser in history – on whom he won RSA Chase in 1963 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966. In fact, immediately before the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1966, as Arkle stood on the brink of history, Observer correspondent Hugh McIlvanney paid tribute to Taaffe, writing, “Pat Taaffe is one of the few horsemen in the world who can look Arkle in the eye without feeling inferior.”

At 6 ft. 2 ins., Taaffe was uncommonly tall for a jockey, but his unconventional, nay, untidy, style in the saddle – riding a finish was never his specialty – didn’t stop him from becoming Irish National Hunt Champion Jockey nine times or riding 25 winners at the Cheltenham Festival. The brilliance of Arkle may have eclipsed some of his less able companions, but all bar four of those winners were trained by his boss, Tom Dreaper. Remarkably, all bar two – Stroller, trained by Vincent O’Brien, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1954 and Flyingbolt, trained by Dreaper, in the same race a decade later – came in steeplechases.

Arkle aside, Taaffe also won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on his stable companion Fort Leney in 1968, for a total of four wins in the ‘Blue Riband’ event. He bettered that total in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with five wins, on Fortria in 1960 and 1961, Ben Stack in 1964, Flyingbolt – whom, incidentally, he regarded superior to Arkle – in 1966 and Straight Fort in 1970. Taaffe also won the RSA Chase five times, on Coneyburrow in 1953, Solfen in 1960, Grallagh Cnoc in 1961, Arkle in 1963 and Proud Tarquin in 1970 and remains the leading rider in the history of the premium novices’ staying chase.

Lord Oaksey

Lord Oaksey  In the latter part of his career, John Oaksey, or Lord Oaksey, was better known as a journalist, broadcaster and fundraiser for the Injured Jockeys Fund but, in his younger days, was a highly successful amateur jockey. Born John Lawrence in 1929, he adopted the name John Oaksey when he became the third Baron Oaksey, and fourth Baron Trevethin, on the death of his father in 1971.

Despite not having “any natural ability”, at least not according to legendary commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Oaksey rode over 200 winners and was Champion Amateur Jump Jockey twice, in 1957/58 and 1970/71. He recorded four victories at the Cheltenham Festival, winning the National Hunt Chase on Sabaria in 1959, the Kim Muir Handicap Chase twice, on Jimmy Scott in 1966 and Black Blaize in 1971 and the Foxhunter Chase on Bullocks Horn in 1973. In so doing, he became the only jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival to win all three races reserved, exclusively, for amateur riders.

Following his death, after a lengthy illness, in 2012, the National Hunt Chase the following year was run as the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase in his honour. Indeed, his legacy at the Cheltenham Festival continued three years later when Coneygree, whom he bred from his inexpensive mare Plaid Mare, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for his daughter and son-in-law, Sara and Mark Bradstock. Sara Bradstock said afterwards, “It’s because my father was the greatest. That’s where we’ve got this luck from; he deserved it and he’s looking down. He’s not here, but he is here in spirit.”

J.P. McManus

J.P. McManus  The green and gold silks of John Patrick “J.P.” McManus are familiar throughout the world of National Hunt racing, on both sides of the Irish Sea, but perhaps nowhere more so than the Cheltenham Festival, where they’ve been carried to victory no fewer than 53 times. McManus, who has a net worth of €2.1 billion, is reputed to have collected £250,000 in a single bet when Mister Donovan won what is now the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle in 1982, and hasn’t looked back since.

The Limerick-born Irishman has won the Champion Hurdle seven times, with Istabraq three times, in 1998, 1999 and 2000, Binocular in 2010, Jezki in 2014 and Buveur D’Air twice, in 2017 and 2018, the Stayers’ Hurdle three times, with Baracouda twice, in 2002 and 2003 and More Of That in 2014, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Synchronised in 2012.

McManus is far and away the leading owner at the Cheltenham Festival, some 29 winners ahead of his nearest pursuer, Gigginstown House Stud, although, with 17 winners at the Festival since 2014, Michael O’Leary’s operation has made substantial inroads into his lead in recent years. But, as McManus himself put it, “Racing is a great leveller. The day you think you have mastered the game, you will be made to pay for it the following day.” Nevertheless, with a string of horses in training in Ireland and the United Kingdom, McManus is likely to continue his love affair with the Cheltenham Festival for a good while yet.