Legends of the Turf: Fortria

13th March 2013

As Sprinter Sacre, already considered one of the best two mile chasers to have raced, lines up in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, it’s worth casting the mind back over the other champions on the race’s roll of honour. Outstanding among the early winners is dual victor Fortria, an immensely tough horse with an intriguing mix of speed and stamina, allied to exceptional jumping prowess. Although overshadowed by his illustrious stablemate Arkle, Fortria was one of the best chasers of his era and is remembered as such.

An attractive bay horse, Fortria (foaled 1952) was bred to excel over fences.  His sire Fortina won the 1947 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the only entire to do so, while his dam Senria also produced the 1957 National Hunt Handicap Chase winner Sentina.

Fortria made his racing debut in a hurdle race at Mullingar, but made little impression on either this outing or his next attempt.  He made more of an impact over fences, and scored an impressive win in the Cotswold Chase (later known as the Arkle Challenge Trophy) over two miles in March 1958, beating Irish Jurist by five lengths. During the next season, Fortria struggled with his breathing and failed to win, before he was hobdayed in an attempt to rectify the issue.

Returning in 1959, Fortria immediately displayed his ability to the chasing world. He recorded a good win in Manchester’s Pathfinder Chase, beating Nickleby by nearly two lengths under 12st 3lbs. Back in his native Ireland, he was beaten a head by Leopardstown Chase winner Fredith’s Son in a three mile chase while attempting to give him 12lbs, was fourth in the Baldoyle Handicap Chase and then second in Fairyhouse’s Easter Chase to subsequent Grand Annual Chase winner Monsieur Trois Etoiles while conceding him 13lbs.

Fortria then headed to Cheltenham for the 1960 Champion Chase. In a small field of seven, he was sent off the 2/1 favourite and led all the way to triumph by three lengths from the speedy Blue Dolphin and Brown Owen. He then put up a fantastic effort in the Galway Plate under 12-7, but could only finish fourth to Sparkling Flame, who blew the field away.

Fortria showed even better form the following season, starting off with a win in a hurdle race in Ireland, before lining up for the inaugural Mackeson Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Also in the field was Saffron Tarton, who would go on to win that season’s King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup. Jumping superbly, Fortria took the lead coming down the hill and was never in danger thereafter, winning by six lengths from Icanopit with Saffron Tarton far back. It was an effort that truly showcased Fortria’s quality, and showed that he stayed further than two miles.

He next beat dual Irish Champion Hurdle winner Albergo (receiving 19lbs) in a chase over two miles three furlongs, then finished fifth in the Thyestes Chase to Christmas Chase winner Hunter’s Breeze and Grand National winner Mr. What. He regained the winning thread with a hurdles victory over Another Flash (1960 Champion Hurdle winner) and Albergo, before heading to Cheltenham for the Champion Chase again.

Against stronger opposition, including 1959 Champion Chase Quita Que, future winner Sandy Abbot and outstanding novice chaser Retour de Flamme, Fortria wore his rivals down to win by two lengths. Third placed Quita Que reappeared to win the Cathcart Challenge Cup two days later.

He then astounded onlookers by recording an easy win in the Irish Grand National under 12st, beating 1960 winner Zonda and Power Gold Cup winner Owen’s Sedge. It was a tremendous display of staying power from a horse fast enough to beat a Champion Hurdler and win two Champion Chases, and marked Fortria out as a horse of the highest quality. He reverted to two miles in his next race to win the precursor to the Punchestown Champion Chase.

Despite these successes, Fortria struggled in the next season, winning just once (in a walkover) but consistently running well under big weights, including in the Mackeson Gold Cup behind prolific chaser Scottish Memories. At the Cheltenham Festival, connections decided to try him over the longer trip of the Gold Cup and although it looked for a few strides like he might win, he eventually gave way to the game Mandarin to finish a length behind in second. The rest of the field were ten lengths behind the top two finishers, including former winner Pas Seul.

Fortria (left) and Mandarin

Fortria (left) and Mandarin

The following season, Fortria bounced back to his old form with a win in Newbury’s Hermitage Steeplechase from future Whitbread Gold Cup winner Hoodwinked. He then faced a field of 25 in the Mackeson Gold Cup, including 1962 Champion Chase winner Piperton and 1963 victor Sandy Abbot. Under top weight of 12st, Fortria fought off the attention of lightly weight rivals to win in determined fashion by three lengths.  This was his nineteenth win, and seventh victory from nine starts in England.

A lifeless effort in a handicap at Baldoyle preceded another crack at the Gold Cup, but this time Fortria faced the mighty six year old Mill House, who’s abundant stamina and talent proved too strong for the Irish horse, although he nonetheless ran a good race in second.

Fortria ran just three more times after this effort, winning his seasonal debut, then finishing second to Lizawake in the Becher Chase while conceding nearly two stone. His final race came in the Mackeson Gold Cup, where he struggled home to finish fifth behind Richard of Bordeaux, who carried 23lbs less.

Soon after this, connections called time on Fortria’s racing career, and the gallant old chaser was retired as the winner of twenty races and over £20,000 in prize money. He was one of the great chasers of the post-war era, and ranks amongst the best and most versatile Champion Chase winners. The Fortria Chase at Navan is run in his honour and has been won by some top class two milers such as Moscow Flyer and Big Zeb.

Fortria (1952) by Fortina out of Senria (Sun Yat Sen)

Owner: George Ansley

Trainer: Tom Dreaper

Jockey: Pat Taaffe

Major wins:

Champion Chase (1960, 1961)

Mackeson Gold Cup (1960, 1962)

Irish Grand National (1961)

Cotswold Chase (1958)

Pathfinder Chase (1959)

By Alice Kay