As a major sponsor of racing, French cognac maker Jas Hennessy & Co. holds the title position of not just one but two prestigious Gold Cup jumping events, one in Newbury, England and a second in Leopardstown, Ireland. Both are called the “Hennessey Gold Cup,” which can cause a bit of confusion. The former is a major Class 1, Grade 3 race, while the latter is a Grade 1 event commonly referred to as the “Irish Hennessey” so as to tell them apart. Each of them plays a role in their respective National Hunt chases, and they are both seen as important trials leading up to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
Hennessey’s relationship with the race in Great Britain has the distinction of being the longest running sports partnership of its kind. The event began in 1957 at Cheltenham, where a horse named Mandarin took the inaugural victory for owner Peggy Hennessy, a member of the company’s founding family. But Cheltenham would not sell cognac, so the race venue was moved to its current home at Newbury Racecourse in Berkshire in 1960. A year later Mandarin came home the winner for a second time. Eventually the Irish Hennessey was added in 1987.
When Whitbread dropped sponsorship of the Whitbread Gold Cup in 2001, the Hennessy Gold Cup became British racing’s longest commercial sponsorship. In 2010, Newbury race officials signed a new three-year contract with the spirits brand manufacturer to assure that the fixture that is run each November/December remains in place at least through 2012.
A Glorious Tradition
The track at Newbury has been around since 1905, playing host to flat racing as well as jumps. It was the site of Lester Piggott’s very first win in 1949 and saw Winston Churchill’s horse Loving Cup win the Kintbury Stakes in 1952. A strong association with the Royal family has been enjoyed throughout its history, too.
But the Hennessey Gold Cup has become Newbury’s defining race, a handicap open to horses aged four years or older. The distance covered is 3 miles and 2½ furlongs (5,331 metres), which includes 21 fences on a left-handed course of turf.
One of the most famous horses to win the Hennessey was Arkle, striding to victory in 1964 and 1965. For the second win the champin carried a whopping 12-stone-7 in weight, but was still rated as a 1/6 favourite. Among trainers, Fulke Walwyn is most notable, not just for his two wins with Mandarin but also five others—Taxidermist (1958), Mill House (1963), Man of the West (1968), Charlie Potheen (1972) and Diamond Edge (1981).
More recently, famed horseman Paul Nicholls achieved a rare feat, winning the Gold Cup as both a jockey and a trainer. He rode Broadheath (1986) and Playschool (1987) to wins, and then performed a hat trick as a trainer with Strong Flow in 2003 and twice with Denman (2007, 2009).
Race Days at Newbury
Around the race, three full days of activities have developed, now known as the annual Winter Festival. It attracts not only the biggest stars in racing but also celebrity race-goers, such as Richard Madeley, Julian Fellowes, Salman Rushdie, Lord Freddie Windsor, and Newbury regular, actor James Nesbitt. There is entertainment, too, such as a Celebrity Chef appearance in the Hennessy Restaurant, Hen and Stag parties, concerts, and fashion shows.
Other featured races during the Winter Festival include the Grade 2 GPG Novices Chase and the Class 3 Newbury Racecourse Handicap Chase among seven races on “Newbury Day,” which is a Thursday. On Friday, “Gentlemen’s Day,” there are six races culminating in the Grade 3 Newbury Racecourse National Hunt Maiden Hurdle.
Then on “Cup Day,” Saturday, seven more races are held, making a total of 20 distinct betting opportunities in all. One of the highlights of Day Three is the Grade 1 Long Distance Hurdle preceding the main event. And following the Hennessey Gold Cup and two closing races sponsored by sportingbet.com—an intermediate hurdle and an amateur riders handicap chase—the crowds head off to the “Festival After Party” at a stylish venue, where celebrating goes on till deep into the night.