Easter Hero - Cheltenham's first chasing hero

21st April 2014

Nowadays the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the undisputed Blue Ribbon of the steeplechasing year, but it was not always the case. Two horses, Easter Hero and Golden Miller, dominated the race between 1928 and 1937, and their fame established the race more than anything else. The legendary “Miller” reigned supreme by winning five successive Cheltenham Gold Cups (1932-37) and Easter Hero comprehensively took the honours, in 1929 and 1930, before being denied by the weather in 1931. Whereas Golden Miller won the Grand National (1934), Easter Hero, many experts agree, was the best horse not to have won the Aintree spectacular.  Undeniably in 1929 he ran an amazing race, to finish 2nd, and become one of the most celebrated chasers of all time. His career is worth recalling.

Easter Hero was bred by Larry King an Irish farmer and foaled near Greenogue Co Dublin in 1920. His sire, My Prince (unplaced in the 1914 Derby) was a half brother to Hurry On the undefeated 1916 St Leger winner.  My Prince had a reasonable flat record but in National Hunt terms, an outstanding record at stud  siring three horses to win the Grand National: Gregalach (1929), dual winner Reynoldstown (1935 & 36) and Royal Mail (1937).  His other most famous progeny was Prince Regent, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1946.  The latter also finished 3rd and 4th in successive Grand Nationals carrying massive weights to rival Easter Hero as one of the best horses to have run at Liverpool and not to have won the race.  Easter Hero’s dam Easter Week ran only once.

As a four year old Easter Hero trained by the owner King,  ran three times on the flat in Ireland at Ballydoyle (17 March 1924), Phoenix Park and the Curragh, coming third in his second run.  The small beautifully fashioned chestnut Easter Hero was sold as a 5 year old by King to Mr Bartholomew for little money.  His English owner was renowned as a bit of chancer, who ran the horse here, there and everywhere.   During his time as owner the horse was trained by W Jones.

The gelding’s first run under National Hunt rules was on 1 January 1925 at Ballydoyle where he was unplaced in a hurdle race. Subsequently that National Hunt campaign he ran at Manchester, Hurst Park, Manchester, Cheltenham, at the festival and Navan.  His second visit to Manchester on 7 March provided his first victory in the two mile Ellesmere Steeplechase.  Finally on 13 April he was unplaced in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

However, despite showing signs of ability the powerful though elegant gelding’s jumping was unreliable.  Indeed he had fallen three times during his first full season, which included the 2m Cotswold Chase at the Cheltenham festival.

Before the 1926/27 season he changed hands for £500. Now under the ownership of Frank Barbour, a wealthy, eccentric, linen thread manufacturer from Ulster, who owned the previous year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup Winner, Koko, his form improved.  Whilst records show that a Mr Bickley trained the horse for Barbour at Tarporley, Cheshire, it is believed the real trainer was Barbour himself. Subsequently, at Liverpool’s Molyneux handicap over 2  1/4m, Easter Hero secured his first major victory, where future Grand National winner Tipperary Tim was a faller.

Although the horse returned in November 1927 to win the Becher Chase his most significant triumph to date came in the following March at Kempton. As the 100/30 favourite, Easter Hero proved his staying power for the first time in the prestigious Coventry Handicap Chase, a recognised Gold Cup trial over 3 ½ miles carrying the top weight of 12st 7lb’s.  This win over an extended distance established the now sleek, streamlined, powerful, yet elegant 8 year old (16.1 hh) as a major player in top class steeplechasing.  His appearance at the 1928 Cheltenham festival was widely anticipated.

Unlike today the steeple chasing scene of the 1920’s was dominated almost exclusively by the Grand National.  Whilst the Cheltenham Gold Cup was first run in 1924 there were very few “race for age” races. Handicaps were prevalent though not in the long term interest of the sport.

Against this background the rising star was purchased by Captain Alfred Lowenstein, a Belgian international financier for £7,000, plus a £3,000 contingency should he win the Aintree showpiece.  An astronomical sum for a National Hunt horse, whose owner then chose to bypass Cheltenham to prepare for the main prize of the age.

Easter Hero was allotted 12st 5lb’s and went to post fourth in the betting of the then record 42 runners,  at 100/7 on Friday 30 March.  He was ridden by his regular jockey P Powell and now trained by Mr Pardy at Bishops Canning, Wiltshire.  Visibility on the day was poor, the going very heavy, though this did not deter his bold front running tactics.  He was treating the massive obstacles with apparent impunity until he reached the open ditch at the canal turn (The open ditch was filled in for the following year’s race). There he miscalculated his take off, landed on top of the fence and reminiscent of the Foinavon National of 1967 a melee of dramatic proportions happened.   Twenty horses were removed from the race and only nine horses emerged unscathed.  Eventually, only two horses finished the race, won by 100/1 outsider Tipperary Tim, whilst the second the American horse, Billy Barton, had himself been remounted after falling at the last fence.

Easter Hero with Tommy Cullinan up

A trip across the channel followed for the Grand Steeplechase de Paris at Auteuil in June, but he refused the water jump.  However, a few days later he redeemed himself by comfortably winning the Prix de Drags, in what turned out to be the only success for his Belgian owner.

Sensationally, Captain Lowenstein disappeared shortly afterwards when his plane went missing in the North Sea on his way to Brussels. No trace was ever found of him.

An American millionaire John Hay Whitney (1904-1982), known as Jock paid Captain Lowenstein’s estate a total £11,000 for the horse, who he immediately moved to Jack Anthony’s yard at Letcombe Regis on the Berkshire downs.  The purchase also included the French mare, Maguelonne, who had run well in 1928 before falling at the fence after Valentine’s on the second circuit.  These purchases began the American’s quest to win the world greatest steeplechase.

New trainer Jack Anthony (1890-1954), the youngest of three famous Welsh racing brothers was already part of the great race’s history having ridden the winner in 1911 at only 21 years of age (his first ever ride in the race), 1915 and 1920, all as an amateur.  He later turned professional but had retired in 1928 to set up as a trainer.  He had been champion jockey in 1914 and 1922.

Thereafter began the period of greatest success for the classy chaser.  He started the 1928/29 season with four easy wins over hurdles before his first tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup on 12 March 1929.  The race was postponed for a week due to frost and Easter Hero’s meticulous pre race preparation included a number of exercise canters on the sands at Tenby.

The bold front runner out jumped and out galloped the 10 runner field to win comfortably by 20 lengths.    The 7/4 favourite was ridden by Fred, (known as Dick) Rees, who had won the previous year’s race on the 5 year old Patron Saint.

Firmly established now as the premier chasing star of his era Easter Hero headed to Aintree. Indeed after the debacle of 1928 the racing authorities hoped by increasing the entrance fee to £100 in addition to a double forfeit stage that entries would be down.  However, victory for the no hoper Tipperary Tim along with the substantial prize resulted in an incredible field of 66 going to post.  To compare the two races the Aintree winner of 1929 took home £13,000 compared to the paltry sum of under £1,000 for Gold Cup.  In fact during that season only 5 races had prize money in excess of £1,000.

As expected Easter Hero headed the weights with 12st 7lb’s and went off with Jack Moloney on board as the 9/1 favourite.  Amazingly all 66 runners negotiated the first fence and only one horse fell at the second.  Meanwhile, Easter Hero adopted his customary front running tactics, dominating the race until Valentines’ second time round.  By half way the field had been reduced to only 19.

Unfortunately, Easter Hero then spread a plate which twisted into the shape of a letter S, and receiving 17lb’s his half brother Gregalach wore him down to eventually win by 6 lengths.    Jockey Jack Moloney did not pick up his whip, but remarked that “if he slowed down you knew he had given his all”.  An estimated crowd of 300,000, four times more than today’s on course figures had witnessed one of the most heroic performances in the race’s history and another 100/1 winner.

The next season 1929/30 followed a similar pattern.  After two chasing wins at Wolverhampton and Leicester the 10 year old headed for Cheltenham.  This time with Irishman Tommy Cullinan in the saddle the horse survived uncharacteristic mistakes at the first two obstacles, but eventually settled by the jockey he won by 20 lengths, (at 8/11) ahead of Grakle, ridden by Keith Piggott, Lester’s father.  Gib had been upside him, but fell at the second last when under pressure.

Sadly a scheduled return to Aintree was halted due to a tendon strain four days before the big race.  As a result jockey Tommy Cullinan, who had also won the Champion Hurdle for Anthony on Brown Tony, got the ride on the winning horse, Shaun Gollin.

It proved to be a minor setback for the great chaser, who again began what proved to be his last season on Boxing Day 1930 at Wolverhampton.  Two further victories followed at Leicester and Sandown Park, until giving away 23lb’s to Desert Chief he was beaten by a head at Lingfield Park.  However, an attempt to win a third Gold Cup was foiled by the weather, the race being abandoned due to frost.

As a fresh horse the 11 year old headed to Aintree with hopes high he could atone for the unfortunate incident of the previous year which denied him the chance to fulfil Whitney’s dream. Certainly despite his top weight of 12st 7Ib’s the bookies thought so, sending him off the 5/1 favourite in a field of 43 runners.  But luck wasn’t on his side as he was knocked over at Becher’s second time round when well placed to mount a challenge. The race was won by his old adversary Grakle with 1929 winner Gregalach 1 ½ lengths back in second.

The following day Easter Hero returned to the racetrack for the Champion Chase Cup , a popular level weight’s contest over 2m 7 ½ furlongs. Strange to believe that for many years the race was used as a consolation prize for National vanquished.  After making a desperate mistake at the last he only managed a dead heat against the French horse, Coup De Chateau, who at level weights was rated a much inferior animal to the double Gold Cup winner.

After the result the horse was immediately retired to America.  Here he spent his time hunting with his American owner in Virginia until his death on 10 February 1948 at the age of 28.

Whitney meanwhile failed in his dream to win the Grand National as Thomond II (1934/35) twice and Sir Lindsay (1930) both finished 3rd.

Easter Hero was without doubt the superstar of steeplechasing in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  As the first dual winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he hacked up to win on both occasions and helped raise the profile of the race.   During that period he dominated the jumping arena particularly on park courses where he was the supreme racing animal. Whilst he became slightly overshadowed by Golden Miller he was probably the first truly athletic type chaser of National Hunt history.  His valiant, but ultimately vain attempt to win the Grand National in 1929 remains one of the most remarkable episodes in Aintree history.

 

By Stephen Wallis