A huge roar of shock came from the packed stands at Cheltenham racecourse in the west of England. After soaring perfectly over the third-to-last fence from home, Pendil, odds-on favorite to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, landed on the legs of a fallen outsider and crashed heavily down. It was not merely the loss of $35,000 in prize money and a dozen magnums of vintage champagne that caused the reaction from the crowd; it was that Pendil had lost the greatest steeplechase in the world.
The greatest steeplechase in the world? That is a fighting phrase for those still caught up by the death-or-glory magic of the Grand National at Aintree, but there is no doubt at all that as the stands at Liverpool grow shabbier, its crowds dwindle and the quality of the horses entered in the Grand National drops off, so the Gold Cup has grown in stature until it is now the steeplechasing event of the year. Even to exist on the edge of it is prestigious enough for a young jockey like Tommy Skiffington from Middle-burg, Va., who came to Europe a year ago because of the decline of steeplechasing in the U.S. He has ridden 23 winners since, a satisfying number in this sport, but he says his most joyful moment came on the eve of this year's Gold Cup when he unsaddled at Cheltenham after coming in third in a hurdle race. "Cheltenham is what it's all about," he says. "The best steeplechasing horses in the world. Traffic backed up 90 miles to London on Gold Cup day."
Aintree these days is like a raddled old beauty living on her past glories, surrounded by suitors, or horses, it's true, but most of them past their prime, as she is. The Grand National is a colorful gamble in which class horses jammed into huge fields can easily be defeated by 100-to-1 no-hopers. It is significant that Arkle, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in the 1960s and is considered by many people—and most Irishmen—to be the best steeplechaser in the history of racing, was never entered in the Grand National.
Cheltenham has been a resort for a century and a half, but the reason why its Gold Cup has become the world's premier 'chasing event goes back to the 1920s to when Mr. F. H. Cathcart, then head of the Cheltenham Steeplechase Company, decided to drop handicapping. Steeplechasing was in the doldrums then. The only important event was the Grand National, and at Aintree the class horses were always heavily penalized. There was little incentive to breed and race top-class 'chasers. But Cathcart instituted a true championship at equal weights, modified only by a weight-forage plan. This meant there was no future at Cheltenham in entering the kind of old scrubbers so numerous at Aintree. Since the first Cheltenham Gold Cup, run 50 years ago this month, only class horses have been attracted.
Even so, it took a long time, until World War II, for its prestige to overtake that of the National. Cheltenham was a trial for Aintree and its heroes were shared with Liverpool—such as Golden Miller, who won the Gold Cup five successive years and the Grand National in 1934. The war changed the emphasis. The green Cotswold countryside in which the Gold Cup was run was remote from the battering blitzes that Liverpool suffered. Cheltenham lost only two annual meetings during the war compared with Liverpool's five, and in 1945 it was at Cheltenham that postwar steeplechasing officially started. In the 1950s, when commercial sponsorship of steeplechasing in Britain came along, it was the Gold Cup that was the biggest recipient. Now Piper-Heidsieck Champagne adds $24,000 to the prize money, which may be connected with the fact that the firm sent half a million bottles of champagne to Britain in 1973 as compared with 12,000 bottles in 1970.
On Gold Cup day this year a fair proportion of the stuff seemed to have found its way to Cheltenham, a smooth town of elegant Georgian facades in pale yellow Cotswold stone, and particularly to the Queen's Hotel, which the very big Irish contingent had made its headquarters. There, various gentlemen were recounting the adventures that had befallen them on the way to the meeting, all in a vastly happy frame of mind since Irish horses had already done very well in the opening days of the meet. A gentleman from Connemara claimed to have leaped four feet of Irish Sea like a 'chaser at a water jump, between the north wall quay at Dublin and the departing ferry boat for England. He arrived in Cheltenham at midnight with no place to sleep.
"I met some fellow in a bar," he recounted, "who took me to stay in his granny's house. Only then I thought it might be nice to go to the jockeys' ball here at the Queen's. So I climbed out through the bedroom window, not wanting to disturb the old lady, and I went to the dance. But some long, lanky dan of a fellow with a bottle of champagne got between me and the girl I fancied. I couldn't remember where granny's house was. Or me luggage. So I had a quiet sleep under a lamppost. It's a grand meeting, Cheltenham."
There was a more decorous assembly in a private room at the Queen's where a small American group had gathered. Present was Mrs. Martie Sanger, owner of Inkslinger, which would be running in the Gold Cup next day. "There just wasn't anything left at home for him," said Mrs. Sanger. "If only the sun would come out tomorrow," yearned Mike Smithwick, who trained Inkslinger in the U.S. before turning him over to his cousin, Danny Moore, to train in Ireland. Moore was there, noncommittal, but it was clear that he agreed with the general verdict: Inkslinger was a fine horse over hard ground, but the soft Cheltenham turf was not going to help him.
Virginia Guest was there, too, to watch her father's L'Escargot run in the Cathcart Cup, the last race of the meet. L'Escargot twice won the Gold Cup but is well into the old-hero category now. Down the table was Pat Taaffe, who as a jockey rode Arkle to three Gold Cup wins but is now a trainer. His horse for the cup was Captain Christy, too erratic a jumper to be rated better than 7 to 1 but, being an Irish horse, fancied strongly in what had now become the roaring maelstrom of the hotel bar 100 feet away.
The pundits held that it was a two-horse race between Pendil and The Dikler. In 1973, both were well ahead of the field when Pendil, leading by a couple of lengths after jumping the last fence, fell into some kind of trance, brought on, some say, by the flashing cameras and the noise of the crowd. The Dikler came up hard and passed him on the inside. It was the first time Pendil had been beaten in a steeplechase. So, apart from the hopeful Americans and Irish, most looked on the 1974 race as Pendil's attempt at revenge, and there was a great roar for him in the pre-race parade.