This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first Welsh Champion Hurdle.
In 1921 it was a three mile handicap run at the Easter meeting of Cardiff’s racecourse in the northern suburb of Ely, with a prize of £500. The following year “some first class horses” turned out, according to the Western Mail, though its racing coverage was almost secondary to that of its ‘Woman Correspondent’, who filled a whole column describing what the elite ladies of South Wales society were wearing.
More than two columns were necessary in 1924 to report the names of prominent racegoers and the fashions, by which time to Mail had upgraded to a ‘Lady Correspondent’. The description of the actual racing was much shorter. Zarane, “probably the best hurdler in the country at the moment,” had to carry 12 stone 12 pounds in the big race, but he could not concede the weight to Kiwi, who was winning for the fourth time in a row.
Unfortunately, the economic depression and competition from the new Chepstow track in the second half of the 1920s led to the Welsh Champion Hurdle suffering a swift decline. Prize money dropped to £400 in its third year, and then £250 in 1928, which was not enough to justify the word “champion” in its title; it was renamed “the Welsh Hurdle Race”. By this time it was run over two and a quarter miles. Before long it was worth only £100 and then just £70 before disappearing from the calendar in 1935.
The first post-war Welsh Grand National was run at Newport’s Caerleon course on Easter Monday 1948. The Welsh Champion Hurdle was revived seven weeks later, at its two-day Whitsun meeting, with a handsome £750 of prize money. Sadly, it was the briefest of comebacks, as that was the last ever Newport fixture. The Welsh National moved the following year to Chepstow, where the premier contest over the sticks was worth only £400 and called the Welsh Grand Annual Handicap Hurdle.
John Hughes was a much-admired clerk of the course who in the late 1960s was determined to put Chepstow on the map. He succeeded in bringing in sponsors, thereby attracting regular TV coverage of its National Hunt meetings on Saturdays. One of his ploys was the resurrection of the Welsh Champion Hurdle. He realised there were few suitable races for top class hurdlers after they had run at the Cheltenham Festival.
The triple Champion Hurdler Persian War won the inaugural contest in 1969, and a series of other great horses took the race in the next ten years – Bula, Comedy Of Errors (twice), Lanzarote, Night Nurse (twice), Monksfield and Sea Pigeon. The standard slipped a little in the 1980s and by the 1990s it was generally a race for above average handicappers, though mention must be made of the Martin Pipe-trained Potentate. His nine course victories included three in this race from 1997-99. After the 2002 running the fixture list was revised, Chepstow lost its Easter meeting and the Welsh Champion Hurdle disappeared from the programme again.
The creation of the new course at Ffos Las sparked the fourth revival of the race in 2011.
After some experimentation regarding its conditions, distance, and time of year it has settled in its current mid-October slot as a two mile handicap with a restricted weight range. Top class winners include Oscar Whisky, The New One and the Welsh-trained Silver Streak. Sceau Royal, who finished first in 2020, is a winner of 14 races so far. Hopes are high that the Welsh Champion Hurdle can continue to attract horses of this calibre.