All you need to know about the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham racecourse on Friday 18 March.
When and where can I watch the County Hurdle? 1.55pm on Friday 18 March, live in stunning HD on Racing TV.
What Grade? Grade Three. What course? New Course What distance? 2m 1f (8 hurdles).
Prize-money? £70,000 Ages: For 5yo+ Weights and Allowances: Handicap
Sponsor: McCoy Contractors
Key statistics and trends
Key age group:
Since 1998, five-year-olds have won the County Hurdle on 11 occasions. Saint Roi was the latest in 2020.
This race has a history of going to lesser fancied runners, with only two horses - Superb Story (2016) and Saint Roi (2020) - justifying a single-figure price in the last 13 years. Seven of the last 14 winners were 20/1 or bigger and Belfast Banter struck at 33/1 last year.
Seven of the past 15 winners were trained by a member of the Mullins family (Willie x 5, Thomas x 1 and Tony x 1).
But also look out for Skelton!
Dan Skelton has won three of the past six renewals and evidently targets this contest from some way out.
Up and coming talent:
17 of the past 19 winners were either a novice or a second-season hurdler, with Arctic Fire (2017) and Ch’tibello (2019) the exceptions.
Flat runners respected:
Saint Roi became the 13th of the past 18 winners to have raced on the Flat, albeit he ran only once on the level.
Lack of Festival experience no obstacle:
14 of the last 21 winners were running at the Festival for the first time. To underline this, previous success at Cheltenham is not an issue as 20 of the last 21 winners had never previously scored at Cheltenham.
Horses making their handicap debut in this race do not usually fare well but Saint Roi was an exception 12 months ago. Belfast Banter was only having his second start in a handicap hurdle last year, but ran in a competitive Grade 3 contest at Ascot and had 15 previous runs over hurdles.
Frustration for Hobbs:
Philip Hobbs has had a frustrating recent time in the County Hurdle, hitting the frame on seven occasions in the last 13 years. On five of those occasions his runners were priced at 33-1 or bigger (50-1 third in 2017).
Nicky Henderson drought:
Surprisingly, Nicky Henderson has a dismal recent record in this race, with just three of his 25 runners in the last 14 years making the frame.
The County Handicap Hurdle, run over two miles and a furlong, was previously run in honour of Vincent O’Brien, who recorded 23 victories at the Cheltenham Festival, including four Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles, ten Supreme Novices’ Hurdles and a flurry of supporting races.
Having been traditionally run as the last race of The Festival for many years, the McCoy Contractors County Hurdle is a race steeped in history, and is now the second contest on the final day of the meeting. Named after the legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien between 1995 and 2016, the race has been won by some high-class operators over the years, including a subsequent Unibet Champion Hurdle winner in Rooster Booster (2002).
The first County Hurdle was run in 1920 and won by Trespasser, ridden by George Duller, who until 1973 also had a race named after him at Cheltenham’s premier meeting.
The Mullins family have an exceptional record, with brothers Tony (2007 Pedrobob), Willie (2010 Thousand Stars, 2011 Final Approach, 2015 Wicklow Brave and 2017 Arctic Fire) and Tom (2012 Alderwood) all having trained recent winners of the race.
2017 winner Arctic Fire was the first horse to carry topweight to victory since Albergo in 1960. The race gained widespread attention from the media in 2018, when winning jockey Bridget Andrews shared a touching celebration by the winning post with her future husband Harry Skelton after winning on the Dan Skelton-trained Mohaayed.
McCoy Contractors are the new sponsors of the race for 2021. It marks the first time that McCoy Contractors has sponsored a race at the Cheltenham Festival, though they are no strangers to the sport, having partnered Warwick Racecourse’s Classic Chase for the last three renewals.
Recent renewals of the McCoy Contractors County Hurdle:
2021 - Belfast Banter
Kevin Sexton produced a fine ride to earn a first Cheltenham Festival victory for jockey and trainer Belfast Banter (33-1) posted a memorable victory in the silks of owners Direct Bloodstock Limited.
The six-year-old was squeezed up a little at the top of the hill but travelled noticeably strongly into the straight and hit the front inside the final half-furlong to prevail by a length and a quarter from the admirable Petit Mouchoir (22-1) in second with Milkwood (28-1) a further length back in third. Éclair De Beaufeu (11-1) finished fourth.
Sexton said: “He travelled bette than ever, the drying ground really helped him. He always wanted to go forward and I just wanted to hold onto him for as long as I could.
“To be hoest, I never thought he was going to get in. I had all eyes on the mare (Royal Kahala) yesterday and I thought I was going home without a winner. I thought if this lad finished in the middle it would be great. It still hasn’t sunk in what he's just done.
“It’s unbelievable, to do it for Peter. I was actually a bit emotional because this time two years ago I'd given up ridnig, things weren't happening and I wasn't happy, I'd given up all hope.
“I love racing and I’m now lucky that I’m making a living out of it. It’s all down to Peter and the team."
2020 – Saint Roi
Saint Roi landed a gamble to continue a superb Festival for trainer Willie Mullins, owner JP McManus and jockey Barry Geraghty.
Saint Roi may have been lightly-raced and makming his handicap debut, but money talked and the five-year-old delivered in style.
Coming to the last, Embittered held every chance, as did a few others, but Saint Roi was coasting and the 11-2 favourite pulled away to win decisively by four and a half lengths.
Mullins also saddled the runner-up, Aramon, with Gordon Elliott's Embittered a head away third and another of the Mullins' team, Buildmeupbuttercup, another head back in fourth.
Riding his fifth winner of the week, Gearghty said: "He was electric, for a horse with little experience, the pace they went, he was very good. Willie was sweet on him and he's not a bad judge. It's what you dream of, you come here and one winner is all you want."
It was to be Geraghty's final Festival winner as he subsequently retired.
2019 – Ch’tibello
Dan Skelton continued his tremendous record in one of the season’s most competitive handicaps as Ch’tibello (12-1) struck under brother Harry and a burden of 11st 5lb to bring up a third success in four years for the trainer.
Confidently-ridden, Harry Skelton took the brave man’s route up the inside and really motored clear after jumping the last in front for victory by a length and half.
The jockey watched his partner Bridget Andrews land this race last year and memorably embraced her shortly after the line when finishing fifth on Spiritofthegames.
“When you’re on a good horse it just happens,” said the rider after glory this time. “My trainer, my brother, he fills me with confidence.”
“I’m so proud of Harry,” the winning trainer added. “We’ve had this plan for 18 months and he gave him a magic ride. Today I just said You’ve got 10lbs in hand, go and do what you want to do. We love the County Hurdle.”
2018 - Mohaayed
The six-year-old prompted one of the scenes of last year’s meeting in a family triumph for the Dan Skelton team and a first Festival winner for 3lb claimer Bridget Andrews.
The victory was almost plain-sailing despite a price of 33-1 in a 24-runner field, Mohaayed prominent on the outside, taking closer order down the back and upsides after the second-last before finding best up the hill for his jockey. Andrews was mobbed by partner Harry Skelton after the line, the rider of stablemate and fifth-placed finisher Spiritofthegames.
“I can’t believe it,” said a tearful trainer. “I’m a professional and I shouldn’t be crying but Bridget has just won a race at the Festival.
“She works so hard, she’s the epitome of our sport.”
2017 – Arctic Fire:
Arctic Fire, despite being beaten off a 17lb lower mark in this race two seasons earlier, posted the best weight-carrying performance in the race since 1960 by defying topweight in this traditionally ultra-competitive handicap hurdle. It was also his first start for 418 days.
Paul Townend, winning the race for the second time in three seasons, angled his mount towards the stands’ rail as he improved from well off the pace, before producing a stirring effort up the hill to get up in the final 50 yards.
“It is some training performance by Willie to get Arctic Fire back after such a long absence,” Townend said.
“He had top-weight in the race, but he had it for a reason. He is a class horse. I went out with the mind-set of riding him like the best horse and thankfully it has paid off.
“To carry all that weight on the back of a big absence was some effort.”
It was a victory that continued the dominance of Willie Mullins, who has now won four of the last eight renewals.
2016 – Superb Story:
Superb Story became just the second horse to win at single-figure odds since 2006 when powering to success for team Skelton.
The five-year-old had been laid out for the race since his Greatwood Hurdle second at the course in October of that season and Dan Skelton’s preparation of the horse proved immaculate as he dominated the race up the straight.
Skelton said afterwards: "You need a plan and you need to have a bit in hand. When Paul's horse (Old Guard) did what he did after winning the Greatwood I knew I had to be patient.
“I nearly ran Superb Story at Taunton three weeks ago, but the ground was bad, and I've learned a lot from this meeting and I think you have got to have them super fresh."
2015 - Wicklow Brave:
Wicklow Brave has been one of the most talented dual-purpose horses in training in recent years, as top-flight victories in the Irish Champion Hurdle and Irish St Leger testify, and his mark of 138 for the 2015 County Hurdle proved grossly inadequate.
His eight-length demolition job, in what is traditionally one of the most competitive handicap hurdles in the calendar, was one of the performances of the 2015 Festival, in a renewal dominated by Irish runners (four of the first six home were trained by Willie Mullins).
Wicklow Brave provided Paul Townend with his third victory at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival.
“It wasn’t my plan to be in front on him too early, and going to the last he was looking around, which is why he made a mistake, but I couldn’t believe how well I was going at the second-last and had to go.” Townend said.
“It’s an incredible week – I would have settled for one winner, so three is magic.
“Willie is a genius of a man to turn them up at places like this. I was there about three furlongs too soon but thankfully it didn’t matter. He has loads of ability and handled the ground better than I thought he would.”
2014 – Lac Fontana:
Paul Nicholls was a major force in the County Hurdle from 2004 to 2014, winning the race four times. His Lac Fontana proved more than capable of defying a rating of 139, although his supporters would have been fearing the worst when the five-year-old novice lost his position after the third last.
He rallied to the cause under a determined Daryl Jacob to lead close home and confirm how well suited he was to a strongly-run race over this sort of trip.
A relieved Nicholls was quick to praise his jockey and said: “Daryl has been a bit down, but all you need is a bit of luck – he’ll be a totally different guy now.
“I’m chuffed for him – he needed a winner. We’ve been unlucky but that’s just the way it is here. Little margins can go wrong, and you don’t end up on the scoreboard, but we’re on it now and so we’re happy.
“I knew Lac Fontana would gallop all the way to the line, but the way things have been going I feared we would be beaten in a photo finish, but that was just what we wanted.
Lac Fontana also confirmed he was firmly on the rise when he followed up in the Grade One novice at Aintree the following month.
2013 – Ted Veale:
Ted Veale had been undone by heavy ground when failing to land a gamble on handicap debut at Leopardstown two months earlier and the rain that had got into the Cheltenham ground by the opening race on the final day was a real concern for his supporters.
They need not have worried though, because Tony Martin’s improving novice cruised through the race and was still cantering away like he had just joined in approaching the last, as he closed in on long-time leader Tennis Cap.
There was more than enough in the tank to assert up the hill and make amends in some style for his Leopardstown defeat.
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