Formally know as the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle, this Class A Grade 3 National Hunt hurdle race is conducted on the fourth and final day of the Cheltenham Festival each March. It covers a distance of two miles and a furlong on the left-handed turf of the new Course with eight hurdles to be cleared en route to the finish line. Entrants are horses aged five years old and upwards.
When the event was inaugurated in 1920, it was known simply as the “County Hurdle.” The very first event was won by Trespasser with the saddle occupied by George Duller, who had won the Champion Jockey title just two years earlier. Following a hiatus in racing for World War II, the County Hurdle was resumed as the “County Handicap Hurdle,” but it had to be abandoned in 1947, 1949, and 1955 due to severe frost and/or snow. The race records typically refer back no further than 1946.
In 1995, the name of retiring racehorse trainer Dr. Michael Vincent O’Brien (1917~2009) was appended to the event, honouring his long history of contributions to the sport. The Irishman from Churchtown, County Cork recorded 23 total victories at the Cheltenham Festival during his career and was voted in a 2003 Racing Post newspaper poll as the “greatest influence in horse racing history.”
For most of its history, the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle was featured as the very last race run at the Festival—the so-called “getting out stakes” event—but in 2009, its position on the schedule was shifted to the second spot on Day Four. It is now run as one of three hurdles conducted ahead of the Gold Cup. The reason given for the change given by organisers was “to ensure fresh ground on the chase course.”
Over the years, the handicap race has offered some of the most heated competition of the Festival. Come-from-far-behind wins are by no means unusual. No horse has won the race more than once, but trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Ruby Walsh have proved to be a formidable combination new millennium. The two claimed the event’s first hat-trick of victories with 20/1-shot American Trilogy in 2009 after having already brought home two joint favourites—Sporazene in 2004 at 7/1 odds and Desert Quest in 2006 at 4/1.
In 2011, the total prize fund for the County Handicap Hurdle was fixed at £70,000, down slightly from the £75,000 offered in 2010, when six-year-old Thousand Stars claimed £42,758 for the Hammer & Trowel Syndicate, trainer Willie Mullins, amateur jockey Ms. Katie Walsh, and crew. The victory paid 20/1, bucking the trend of winners paying less than 16/1, which has occurred in 32 of the most recent 36 renewals.
If age makes a difference here, the five- and six-year-olds are the horses to back. Together, they have won 39 of the past 48 runnings, and the younger mounts own seven of the last twelve triumphs. This is especially noteworthy because such horses have made up only 20% of the total field. What’s more, only four horses older than seven have won since 1959.
Another factor to take into consideration is weight. In the past half a century, no starter has ever carried more than 11 stone 8 pounds across the finish line first. In fact, only one runner-up has carried more than that weight since 1979.