The Betfair Hurdle, originally known as the Schweppes hurdle, remains one of the important handicap hurdles of the racing winter. The 2020 edition was won in dramatic style by the 33/1 outsider Pic D'Orhy. The race provided Champion trainer Paul Nicholls with his second win in the famous handicap hurdle.
Our latest blog, 'a man who loved his Schweppes' features trainer Ryan Price, who won four of the first five runnings of the race. Price remained the race's leading trainer until Nicky Henderson broke his record with a fifth success in 2013.
Some trainers have a great affinity with certain races, Luca Cumani and the Extel Handicap at Goodwood in the 1980s are a perfect example. Whilst Vincent O’Brien achieved legendary status with his ten wins from eleven runners (his other one was second) in the Gloucestershire Hurdle, now the Supreme, that though was in the 1950s.
The 1960s gave us another maestro who knew how to get a horse ready for “The Day” in Ryan Price. Like O’Brien he was a master under both codes, having scored Grand National and Champion Hurdle victories and in years to come he would garner success on the flat with two classic wins.
The one race that is synonymous with him though is the Schweppes Gold Trophy, now the Betfair Hurdle. The first running was in 1963 at Aintree, unfortunately the race is best remembered for a fall that nearly killed Stan Mellor, when virtually the entire field proceeded to kick him into oblivion or at least tried to. The race went to Rosyth trained by Ryan Price, who trained at Findon in Sussex, now the stables of Nick Gifford. Rosyth beat Royal Jenny by one length at odds of 20/1. Subsequently, he recommended to the owner that he sold Rosyth, as the horse broke blood vessels, which made him difficult to train.
Ryan Price had served with great distinction during World War II and indeed had been Field Marshall Montgomery’s batman. Famous for wearing his trilby at a rakish angle, he was always his own man. And whilst he perhaps never courted controversy, he was never afraid of meeting it head-on. On more than one occasion, he had come to the attention of stewards, so wrongly or rightly he was a marked man.
With no worthwhile form after his victory in the 1963 Schweppes, Rosyth went off a 10/1 chance in the 1964 race now run at Newbury, in what was without doubt the best running of the race. For behind Rosyth (see below) that day was not one, not two, but three Champion Hurdlers, two lengths back in second was Salmon Spray, fourth was Magic Court, whilst in sixth came Another Flash. Also in the field were horses of the calibre of Sempervivum and Spartan General, both were placed in Champion Hurdles, whilst the latter went onto be the sire of that great Hunter-Chaser Spartan Missile. No sooner had Rosyth passed the post first, the suspicions started to be aired and it was not long before Price had his collar felt by the stewards.
The subsequent enquiry by the National Hunt Committee could not have gone worse. Jockey Josh Gifford was banned for six weeks, whilst Price was banned until the end of the season. Ryan Price felt at the time it would be even longer and so it looked. He did indeed get his licence back for the 1964-65 season, but they learned one thing from the enquiry. In the future make sure you have proper legal counsel and that would stand them in good stead.
Ryan Price’s assertion that Rosyth was a ‘spring horse’ was borne out by the fact that in the 1965 running when in the care of Tom Masson he finished second to Elan.
With his licence back, he set about winning the Schweppes again and he turned to La Vermontois, who won the 1966 running with Josh Gifford in the saddle, thankfully without any controversy.
The 1967 race though had all the hallmarks of a Dick Francis thriller. Ryan Price had two runners Burlington II and Hill House but all the attention both before and after the race was on Hill House. Hill House had been well thought of as a two-year-old and had finished second in Haydock’s Buggins Farm Nursery - historically a top class juvenile handicap, the Derby winner Tulyar had won a previous running. Hill House though would solely disappoint as a three-year-old.
Subsequently, he was turned-out with a hunter that Ryan acquired and so hence he came to the attention of Ryan Price.
Hill House ran five times that season before the Schweppes. He finished a good fourth on his seasonal debut, before winning a good race at Huntingdon. His third run of the season was one of great promise and hinted of bigger things to come, in that he suffered very bad interference in running before finishing fourth.
It would be his last two runs that would lead to so much uproar, in one he had refused to start and then he was a never threatening fourth, with the Schweppes just a week away things did not look good.
The race went to plan and there probably has never been an easier winner of the race as “daylight” was a distant second, as jockey Josh Gifford rode him out to the line. Some sections of the crowd though took great exception to the victory and showed their displeasure even before he passed the winning post. The stewards thought that there was a case to answer and so his collar was felt again but what later came out would cause many a sleepless night and had ramifications for years to come. After a lengthy inconclusive enquiry on the day, a subsequent dope test revealed that Hill House had tested positive for the steroid cortisol.
After spending a month at Newmarket’s Equine Research Station all tests proved that Hill House produced the steroid naturally and consequently Ryan Price was cleared of all charges, seven months after the race. Years later he would reflect on the day he bought that hunter and took charge of Hill House. “One horse gave me as much pleasure in the saddle as anything I have ever ridden; the other caused me more anxious moments than any horse I have ever trained”.
As regards Hill House he was sold to the bookmaker John Banks but after no success went showjumping with Harvey Smith. He ended his days back at Ryan Price’s with all of his other old champions.
Blog by guest blogger Grenville Davies