I take a walk down memory lane, with a look back at the highlights, talking points, background, and the aftermath for the main protagonists at the 1997 Cheltenham Festival. With this years festival fast approaching make sure you sign up for my Cheltenham Tips 2017 Email List.

The 1997 Cheltenham Festival kicked off on March the 11th, with the Smurfit Champion Hurdle the big race on Day One. Large Action who had been placed in the 1994 and 1995 runnings of the Champion Hurdle, came back from over a year off with injury to start 7/2 favourite, having won three from three that season. He was closely followed in the market by the defending champion in Collier Bay, who had warmed up for his attempt at winning back to back Champion Hurdles, with a head win in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Space Trucker was the leading Irish contender, coming into the race on the back of three handicaps wins, while the only other horses under 10/1, were I’m Supposin, Make A Stand and Sanmartino. The unusual thing about them was they were all novices. I’m Supposin was a useful flat performer coming into the race after winning two minor novice hurdles.

Make A Stand who was only ninth on his hurdling debut at Exeter in October 95, won three novice hurdles in May 96, and as such was still a novice the following winter, although when he came just fifth of nine, off a mark of 123, in a Cheltenham Handicap in November, not many would predict he’d go to post one of the favourites for the Champion Hurdle just four months later. He won his next four starts before Cheltenham though, culminating in the Tote Gold Trophy off a mark of 136.

The race lost some of it’s competitiveness early, with Large Action pulled up injured after the second, and Collier Bay only getting as far as the fourth, when another mistake there, having already hit the third hard, seen his jockey call it a day too.

Meanwhile the AP McCoy ridden Make A Stand was jumping with precision from hurdle to hurdle, and by half way he was around ten lengths clear. The pack had closed that advantage to three lengths jumping the third last, and he briefly looked in danger of being swallowed up, but like many Martin Pipe horses before him, he just kept finding. Another good jump sealed victory at the last, and he was going away again at the line for a five length win, with Theatreworld, as he would do for the next two years, staying on late to snatch second place.

Sadly Make A Stand never won again, he was a well beaten third in the Aintree Hurdle that season, and an injury sustained meant he wasn’t seen again until the 2000 Champion Hurdle, when he beat just one rival home.

1997 was the year that the great Istabraq was introduced to the Cheltenham crowd. Bought for just 38,000 GNS out of the John Gosden yard, having come second in a flat handicap off a mark of 83 on his last outing for him. JP McManus bought the horse on the recommendation of John Durkan, Gosdens assistant, who was going to train the horse himself, but Durkan was soon to be diagnosed with Leukaemia, and he suggested Aidan O’Brien should train the horse, while he fought the illness.

Istabraq was second on his hurdling debut at Punchestown in November 1996, but he won his next three starts, and with huge market confidence behind him, he went off just 6/5, in a field of seventeen for Royal Sunalliance Novices Hurdle, the opening race of Day Two.

Istabraq got a bit buzzed up beforehand, and having initially intended to jump him off handy, his jockey Charlie Swan decided to drop him in at the rear of the field. He was still last coming past the stands with a circuit to go, but started making good progress from halfway. A bad bump jumping the second last could have stopped a lesser animal, but Istabraq jumped the last in front, and battled well to hold Mighty Moss by a length at the line. He was pretty much all out, and while his connections and fans were delighted with the win, the bare form, and battling nature of it, didn’t suggest he’d go on to be one of the greatest hurdlers of all time.

Just six went to post for the Day Two highlight, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with the novice Strong Promise, who despite dropping back to two miles, having been well beaten in the King George, before winning a grade one over just shy of two and a half at Ascot, went off 5/2 favourite. Viking Flagship was joint second favourite in his bid to regain his crown. having won the Champion Chase in 1994 and 1995, before coming second the previous year. He was joined at 3/1 by Klarion Davis who had won the 1996 renewal, having also won the Arkle in 1995.

Ask Tom was a well beaten sixth in the Arkle in 1996, but won the grade one novice at Aintree that season, and two wins from three starts in the 96/97 season, seen him go off just 6/1 for the big one. Martha’s Son looked a chaser on his way to the top when winning the Comet at Ascot in February 1995, but having started the following season with a second at Huntingdon in November, he suffered a leg injury, and wasn’t seen again until the end of February in 1997. He fell at the second that day, so had plenty of questions to answer when he turned up at Cheltenham three weeks later, going off 9/1 under Rodney Farrant.

Arctic Kinsman who would probably have led, was withdrawn at the start and it meant Ask Tom made the early running, and while he went steady enough, he was a little free. Strong Promise’s jockey, Norman Williamson was unhappy with the pace and soon sent his mount up to dispute the lead, and by the time they reached the third last he was in front, and travelling like the winner. He got the fence all wrong however, and by the time they jumped the second last, Ask Tom was back in front, attended closely by Viking Flagship.

Rodney Farrant hadn’t asked Martha’s Son for full effort yet though, and a good jump meant he landed in front over the last, before staying on well for a two and a half length win from Ask Tom. Viking Flagship was third, with Klarion Davis staying on into fourth without ever really threatening. To get Martha’s Son back from injury to win this, having fallen in his prep run, was a great training performance by Captain Tim Foster. Martha’s Son went on to win the Melling Chase at Aintree but was retired after pulling up injured at Huntingdon the following November.

Istabraq wasn’t the only future star that shot to prominence on the 18th of March 1997, as Florida Pearl, having won his only previous start under rules (also won a point to point) at Leopardstown over Christmas, went off 6/1 for the Bumper. Richard Dunwoody sent him to the front with just under a half mile to run, and he was never in any serious danger from that point on, powering up the hill for a five length triumph. He was a very impressive winner, and his future looked bright, but unlike many promising horses before and since, he went on to achieve even more than you could realistically have hoped for.

The big race on the last day of the 1997 Cheltenham Festival, of course it was a three day festival back then, was the Tote Cheltenham Gold Cup. Despite getting well beaten in his prep race in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, the previous years impressive Gold Cup winner, Imperial Call, went off 4/1 favourite in his attempt at back to back wins. Danoli who won that aforementioned Leopardstown race, went off 7/1 joint second favourite in a field of fourteen, and he was joined at that price by One Man, the winner of the previous two runnings of the King George, but with a bit to prove here, as he didn’t appear to stay in the previous years Gold Cup, and was beaten at odds on in his prep race.

Coome Hill was progressive leading up to the race, winning four of his five races that season, and he went off just 15/2, while Dublin Flyer despite the fact he was now eleven, and his best form was over shorter than three miles was an 8/1 shot. Dorans Pride was another of the main contenders in the market, the Irish Novice going off at 10/1, but he had to prove he’d gotten over a heavy fall at Thurles in his prep run.

Dublin Flyer soon took his customary place at the front of the field, closely attended in the early stages by 20/1 shot Mr Mulligan, and Barton Bank who was now eleven, but had top class form to his name, most notably when he fell at the last in the 1994 King George, with the race at his mercy. Mr Mulligan took up the running soon after halfway, with Dublin Flyer beaten soon after, while Danoli and Imperial Call never really traveled, and were also beaten a long way out. Coome Hill was another fancied contender to drop away a good way from home.

By the top of the hill Mr Mulligan was a few lengths clear of Barton Bank and Doran’s Pride, with One Man making smooth progress into fourth. One Man got to within two lengths of the leader between the last two fences, but much as he had the previous year, his stamina ran out, and he stopped to a walk on the run in, leaving the AP McCoy ridden, and Noel Chance trained, Mr Mulligan to come home a nine length winner from Barton Bank, with Dorans Pride, running a great race for a novice, another half length back in third.

Mr Mulligan only ran twice more after that, not making it back to Cheltenham to defend his crown, while Barton Bank was retired after coming eighth the following year. Dorans Pride won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown the following season, but never bettered third position in the Cheltenham version, replicating this third in 1998, while One Man finally got his big Cheltenham win when dropped back in trip in the 1998 Champion Chase, before suffering a fatal fall at Aintree.

It was a bad year for favourite backers, with apart from Istabraq, the only other winning favourite in the twenty races, was Sparky Gale at 3/1 in the Cathcart, while Irish trained runners had just the three wins, with Commanche Court winning the Triumph Hurdle for Ted Walsh. The leading trainer with four winners was Martin Pipe, while AP McCoy won the leading rider award with three wins, including the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup.

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