Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh

Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh Granted his lengthy association with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, the fact that Ruby Walsh is, far and away, the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival is no real surprise. Mullins has saddled 61 winners at the March showpiece meeting, Nicholls has saddled 43 and, between them, they have won the leading trainer award 11 times.

Coincidentally, Walsh has also won the leading jockey award 11 times, including five years running between 2013 and 2017. Indeed, he was favourite to do so again in 2018 but, after two early wins – which took his career total to 58 – aggravated a leg injury, sustained at Punchestown the previous November, when Al Boum Photo fell at the penultimate fence in the RSA Chase on the second day, and missed the rest of the Festival.

Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet, trained by Mullins, in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 1998, as an 18-year-old amateur. Having turned professional, he had to wait a few years for his second, Blowing Wind, trained by Martin Pipe, in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup in 2002 but, thereafter, has ridden at least one winner at every Cheltenham Festival.

His notable successes include the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, the Champion Hurdle four times, on Hurricane Fly in 2011 and 2013, Faugheen in 2015 and Annie Power in 2016, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, on Azertyuiop in 2004 and Master Minded in 2008 and 2009, and the Stayers’ Hurdle five times, on Big Buck’s in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and Nichols Canyon in 2017. The four ‘championship’ races aside, together Walsh and Mullins have ‘farmed’ the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, winning all bar three of the eleven renewals – including six in a row between 2009 and 2014, with Quevega – since it was added to the Festival programme in 2008.

Charlie Swan

Charlie Swan Charlie Swan, who retired from the saddle in 2003, was Irish National Hunt Champion Jockey nine successive times but, as far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned, will always be remembered for his association with Istabraq. An Irish sporting institution in his time, Istabraq was ridden by Swan on all 29 starts over hurdles and won 23 of them, including four at the Cheltenham Festival. In 1997, as a 5-year-old, he won the Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle, but returned to Prestbury Park to win the Champion Hurdle in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Swan actually rode his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, Trapper John, in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1990. In 1993, he rode four winners – Montelado in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Shawiya in the Triumph Hurdle, Fissure Seal in the Pertemps Network Final and Shuil Ar Aghaidh in the Stayers’ Hurdle – to become leading jockey at the meeting for the first time. When Peter Scudamore retired in April that year, Swan was approached by legendary trainer Martin Pipe about the vacant position as first jockey at Pond House Stables, but opted to stay in Ireland.

At the 1994 Cheltenham Festival, he won the Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle on Danoli, the Champion Bumper on Mucklemeg and the Coral Cup on Time For A Run to become leading jockey for the second year running. The following year, he also won the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Viking Flagship, trained by David Nicholson, who would have the distinction of being his only winner over fences at the Cheltenham Festival. Swan won the Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle again on Urbande in 1996 and, following his fruitful partnership with Istabraq, rode his final winners – Like A Butterfly in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Scolardy in the Triumph Hurdle – in 2002.

Robert Thornton

Robert Thornton Robert “Chocolate” Thornton was forced to call time on his career as a jockey in September, 2015, after failing to fully recover from fractured vertebrae in his neck – the latest in a series of bad injuries – suffered in a fall at Chepstow the previous April. However, in nearly 20 years, for most of which he operated as stable jockey to Wiltshire trainer Alan King, Thornton rode 1,129 winners, including 16 at the Cheltenham Festival.

 

He rode his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, King Lucifer, trained by David Nicholson, in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup as an 18-year-old amateur in 1997 and completed a notable double on Pharanear in what is now the Pertemps Network Final for the same trainer just 35 minutes later. Thornton enjoyed his most successful year at the Cheltenham Festival in 2007, when victories on My Way De Solzen in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Voy Por Ustedes in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Katchit in the Triumph Hurdle and Andreas in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup made him leading jockey at the meeting for the one and only time.

 

He was, in fact, the last British jockey to win the leading jockey award at the Cheltenham Festival.

 

Thornton also won on his first two rides at the Cheltenham Festival in 2008, Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Katchit in the Champion Hurdle, in what turned out to be the most successful season of his career, with 105 winners. His final Cheltenham Festival success came aboard Bensalem in what is now the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase in 1998, avenging a luckless defeat in the same race twelve months previously. All in all, Thornton won three of the four ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle, but never won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.