Chester - At The Races

John Hunt's five favourite Chester Cups

    The SportPesa Chester Cup is the centrepiece of the Boodles May Festival and here Sky Sports Racing’s John Hunt shortlists his most memorable renewals of the big 2m2f handicap.

SEA PIGEON (1978)

"There is no knowing just how good this American-bred colt may be, but I am sure he will be very useful." stated the Glasgow Herald the day after Sea Pigeon won at Ascot as a two-year-old. They weren’t wrong, were they? What a superstar this horse was to become.

The racing landscape has changed to such a degree that the classic 'dual-purpose' horse has just about been consigned to the past. Sea Pigeon worked his way into the hearts of all racing fans flat and jumping.

An attempt to win the 1973 Derby failed and he was quite quickly branded ungenuine and a rogue. We now know that he just need handling with skill and Mark Birch, for years the best jockey in the North, gave the reigning champion a beautiful ride to become the first horse since World War Two to win two Chester Cups.

No starting stalls, huge numbers of coaches in the middle of the track, an area now awash with fancy bars and bistros, were very much images of the time but class is timeless, and I could watch Sea Pigeon forever.

His best days, yeilding two champion hurdles, were still ahead of him. On the flat he went on to shatter the weight carrying record in the Ebor of 1979, but this was a brilliant display around the Roodeye from one of the all-time greats.

RAINBOW HIGH (2001)

No reference to great Chester races can ever be made without a few deserving chapters dedicated to the quite brilliant Barry Hills.

Hills enjoyed over 150 winners at the May Festival during a career spanning six decades. He won an incredible 11 Dee Stakes, 7 Cheshire Oaks, numerous Ormonde Stakes and, happily, four Chester Cups, a record he holds to this day.

Arapahos gave him a first in 1980, Daraahem his last in 2009 but he had a special one in Rainbow High who won in 1999 and did it again two years later. Regaining the crown was not a unique achievement; Top Cees had done it a couple of years before him. But Rainbow High's second win came with a huge weight on his back, 9st 13lbs.

When he won in 1999 it was clear that he was improving rapidly. Indeed, the only blot that year came in the Ascot Gold Cup when he never showed at all. He made his return to the track in 2000 in the Chester Cup and ran ok but the rest of that year was barren.

So, when he produced a somewhat lacklustre 2001 comeback run in Newbury's John Porter Stakes it was not immediately obvious that he could win another Chester Cup.

Crucially though, he got lucky. Firstly, with the ground which had really quickened up, much to his liking. He was also lucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of the great Chester rides from Richard Hughes.

I loved the moment, maybe 3 1/2 furlongs out when he eased to the outside of front running Mana D'Argent and then deeper into the finish, reacted quickly just as it looked like Ansar would slam the door in his face.

No second invitation needed, the crown was on Rainbow High’s head again and once more, Barry Hills was the toast of Chester.

OVERTURN (2011)

Whilst not held in quite the regard of Sea Pigeon, it’s well worth reminding what a tremendously versatile campaigner Overturn was.

This was his biggest day on the flat, but Donald McCain guided him to victories at the Galway Festival over hurdles and won the Northumberland Plate with him too and sadly, he never got to develop his natural talent for steeplechasing, restricted to just five runs over fences, winning three of them.

He was also runner up in the Chester Cup of 2012 when front running tactics were so nearly rewarded for a second time. Boy, how they worked a treat in 2011!

Jockey Eddie Ahern’s career ended in disgrace, but he was a fine horseman at his best and fuelled with the confidence that his win at Newcastle in the plate had given him, Ahern was in no doubt what his tactics were to be, especially as he was gifted the perfect inside draw.

This renewal was particularly strong. Mamlook and Tastahil, the 2010 first and second were back, the favourite was the amazing globetrotter Red Cadeaux and subsequent Cesarewitch winner Darley Sun was also in opposition.

The truth is though, with Ahern getting the fractions perfectly timed and with the most willing and able partner underneath him, Overturn trotted up. Not many turn one of the great handicaps of the season into a procession but that’s exactly what Overturn achieved here.

TRIP TO PARIS (2015)

Every now and then racing will throw up delightful surprises and Ed Dunlop will recall 2015 fondly as his then four-year-old son of Champs Elysees, Trip To Paris, took the stayers scene apart and ended up a noble traveller of the world scene, running with tremendous credit everywhere he went.

That run of success started with success in the Chester Cup, which was particularly sweet for Dunlop, especially bearing in mind he had tried to win it with the quite magnificent Red Cadeaux, favourite for the 2011 renewal.

Trip to Paris hadn't done much at three but things started to bubble nicely with a mile and half success at Lingfield in April followed by a first go at two miles at Ripon.

He was held up at Ripon, well known as a front runners’ track, and fairly bolted up, having come off the pace. He stayed on strongly and it was immediately apparent that he had a bright future ahead. We didn't know how good.

Come the day at Chester, Trip to Paris proved that stamina is so important as, held up in mid-division during a race largely run in pairs, it was only deep inside the last furlong and a half that Graham Lee and Trip To Paris began to close.

Come the line, however he was well on top of the well fancied Irish trained pair, Quick Jack and Zafayan.

Interviewed by Nick Luck on Channel Four Racing and addressing the "what next" question, Dunlop, barely able to disguise his disbelief confided that "one of the owners wants to go for the Ascot Gold Cup! Queue much laughter.

Little Trip to Paris had the last laugh, storming to a famous Royal meeting success, then giving Big Orange a real scare at Glorious Goodwood.

Although he never managed to win again, he travelled to Australia that autumn and ran his heart out twice, going close in the Caufield Cup before a gallant 4th behind the Michelle Payne-ridden Prince of Penzance in the Melbourne Cup.

2015 was indeed a very good year. And it all really started at Chester.

MAGIC CIRCLE (2018)

It’s well worth a nod to last year’s winner serving as a reminder of a truly dominant display together with acknowledging Fran Berry's much-missed skills in the saddle. But perhaps more than anything, owner Dr Marwan Koukash absolutely loves Chester and this victory gave him a scarcely credible 4th win in the race.

The "good doctor" as he is colloquially referred to, helped fuel the build-up to last year’s Melbourne Cup famously stating that he would wear only a Mankini if Magic Circle won the Melbourne Cup.

A below-par run meant that Koukash stayed fully dressed but clearly, he loves the Chester Cup, having won with the unreliable Bulwark, Address Unknown and Suegioo, and he will surely target the race once more.

We have revived memories of great rides, exciting finishes but in Magic Circle, we witnessed a pure and simple demolition job. During his lengthy spell trained by Ralph Beckett, Magic Circle improved over 40lbs so when he arrived at the post at Chester for his first run for Ian Williams, it was perhaps reasonable to doubt whether or not he could find yet more improvement?

Four dazzling minutes later and a six-length winning margin that would have been twelve if they could have raced over 2 1/2 miles, we had our answer.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to see him again trying to add a second Chester Cup off top weight on Friday 10th May? See the race live on Sky Sports Racing.