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 “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.

Barry Geraghty

Notwithstanding the phenomenal record of compatriot Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty remains the second most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival with an impressive tally of 36 winners. The first of them was Moscow Flyer, trained by Jessica Harrington, in the Arkle Challenge Trophy in 2002 and he rode at least one winner at every Cheltenham Festival for the next 14 years. In that period, he won each of the ‘championship’ races – Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup – at least twice and was crowned leading jockey at the Festival twice, in 2003 and 2012.

 

He won the Champion Hurdle twice, on Punjabi in 2009 and Jezki in 2014, the Queen Mother Champion Chase five times, on Moscow Flyer in 2003 and 2005, Big Zeb in 2010, Finian’s Rainbow in 2012 and Sprinter Sacre in 2013, the Stayers’ Hurdle twice, on Iris’s Gift in 2004 and More Of That in 2014 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Kicking King in 2005 and Bobs Worth 2013. He also won the Arkle Challenge Trophy five times and the Triumph Hurdle four times.

 

Following the retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy in April, 2015, Geraghty became the retained rider for the most successful owner ever at the Cheltenham Festival, John Patrick “J.P.” McManus, and the following season carried his familiar green and gold colours to victory aboard Ivanovich Gorbatov in the Triumph Hurdle. Geraghty missed the 2017 Cheltenham Festival through injury, but resumed business as usual in 2018 with two more winners for J.P. McManus. He had to work hard to land odds of 8/15 on Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle, but there were not many easier winners all week than Prezien – one of five runners owned by J.P. McManus – in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup.

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.