The Royal Artillery Gold Cup is one of the oldest events in the Racing Calendar, having existed for 150 years. The inaugural event was held in 1862 at Eltham, although it was not until twelve months later that the now familiar race title came into existence. Following in the footsteps of the Grand Military Meeting, which was first held in the 1840s, the meeting immediately proved extremely popular with members of the Regiment. Lieutenant George Arbuthnot, a famous Royal Artillery Officer of the time, rode the first winner, a horse by the name of Chickahominy. Arbuthnot had a long and distinguished career in the Regiment and was recommended for the Victoria Cross during his service in India in the 1850s.
Sandown Park first hosted the event in 1878 and the meeting was notable for the success of Swift, who provided Lieutenant Harry Dalbiac with the second of four consecutive winning rides in the race. Dalbiac was another colourful character of the early days of the Gold Cup. He served in several of the Imperial campaigns that took place in the late 1800s and thereafter became the subject of Kipling’s famous work ‘The Jacket’.
It was not only Sandown Park that hosted the Royal Artillery meeting in its fledgling days. Several tracks in the south of London area were used in 1800s and into the 20th Century, including long-forgotten circuits at Croydon, Bromley, Plumstead and Aldershot. Following a three-year break when the race was not run due to the Boer War, Aldershot, then a recognised National Hunt course, became the race’s regular home for the next twenty or so years.
The Great War halted virtually all racing activities across the country and the 1914 Royal Artillery Meeting was the last for six years. Finally, the meeting was revived in 1920 and the race was run for the final time at Aldershot, transferring back to its familiar home at Sandown Park the following year. A unique situation occurred also in 1921. The winning owner and rider of Caradoc II, a certain Lt.Col J H Gibbon, arrived at the course with only minutes to spare. His excuse? He had rushed from the Thames where he had earlier witnessed the Cambridge University Boat team, which he had coached, win the Boat Race.
Military racing continued to flourish during the early part of the 20th Century but the sport, and life in general, was cruelly interrupted by the Second World War. After nearly six long and weary years of combat, interest in the sport was predictably at a low ebb, but to their eternal credit the committee pressed with the plan to rekindle interest. Finally in 1949 after a period of ten years, the Royal Artillery Gold Cup was run again. Times were still hard, however. With the majority of the Army still serving overseas and rationing, both human and equine, still in force the continuation of the meeting was a major struggle. The popularity of the meeting remained strong, but the availability of suitably qualified jockeys was still a problem and in 1960 the decision was made to open the race to Officers past and present, plus TA Officers and Officer Cadets from Sandhurst, among others. It was the first of many changes to the qualifications of the race that nowadays allows past and present members of all the Armed Services.
The late 1970s and 1980s was a golden period as far as equine heroes were concerned. In 1978 the race was privileged with the presence of former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Ten Up. Now enjoying a more sedate life in hunter chases, Ten Up proved that the old class was still there by landing the Cup, going on to land the prize twice more in 1980 and 1982. The 1980s were totally dominated by two horses – Quarrier and the remarkable De Pluvinel. Quarrier, owned by Major Sir Kenneth Butt and ridden by Tim Thomson-Jones, won the race in 1984, 1986 and 1987, but it was the exploits of De Pluvinel that still dominate the record books.
De Pluvinel ran in the Gold Cup no less than eight times from 1982 – 1990. Originally owned by Lt.Col J W Deacon and then by his former rider Guy Prest, he finished second on his first appearance in 1982, going one better twelve months later. He finished second again in 1984, 1987 and 1988, and proved there was life in the old horse yet when dramatically regaining his title in 1989. Not done yet, he won it for a third time in 1990 at the venerable age of 17. A truly remarkable racehorse.
The Gold Cup meeting has gone from strength to strength in the 1990s and into the new millennium. One of the loudest cheers heard at the meeting for many a year was heard in 1996 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother received the famous trophy as the owner of the successful Norman Conqueror. Her Majesty had been an enthusiastic supporter of the meeting and had presented the Gold Cup for well over thirty years and it was fitting that for once she got to receive the trophy rather than hand it over.
The champion trainer Paul Nicholls has an excellent record in this race, winning it four times in the last six years, with his stable stalwarts Storm Damage in 2003, Whitenzo in 2005, Inca Trail in 2006 and Le Duc in 2008. All four winners were ridden by the talented Jamie Snowden.
Wet weather in 2014 forced a cancellation at Sandown Park, however the race was rerun later that year at Wincanton with Capt Harry Wallace riding to victory on Don Churston’s Savant Bleu.
A unique event in the Racing Calendar, it is credit to the committee that the Royal Artillery Meeting is even more popular than ever. Without their foresight and fortitude, the annual gathering would surely be but a distant memory. It remains one of the Royal Artillery’s flagship days, hugely popular with the Regiment and the racing public alike and long may it continue to be so.