Rory Fairfax recounts the historic 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup, when the Sirrell Griffiths-trained Norton's Coin become the biggest priced winner of the race in its history


Norton’s Coin has become part of Cheltenham Gold Cup folklore – trained by dairy farmer Sirrell Griffiths, he beat Desert Orchid to become the biggest priced winner of the race in its history.

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You would be hard pressed to think of a scenario in which HM The Queen Mother and a dairy farmer might have shared a smile. Then again, not everybody knows about the 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Herein begins arguably the most astonishing story in Cheltenham Festival folklore. We start with dairy farmer Sirrell Griffiths in Carmarthenshire, Wales, his profession allowing him to lubricate his passion for horse training. In the vast Welsh outdoors he would nurse the potential out of his curated stable of three National Hunt horses. One of which was called Norton’s Coin.

The horse began his racing career as a point-to-pointer but soon began to negotiate the amateur ranks with ease, winning repeatedly. Professional competition beckoned. Griffiths, who had sold Norton’s Coin after breeding him, saw his potential and bought him back for £5,000 in 1987. Like many owners and trainers before and after him, he could now begin to dream of bigger things. He started to race Norton’s Coin ‘under rules’ as a seven-year-old in 1988 and in that same season they won the Silver Trophy Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The pinnacle of most racing careers is to have a Cheltenham Festival winner. Griffiths had somehow pulled it off. However, racing’s ‘Everest’ is the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Raced over a breakneck three miles and two furlongs, this is the race that salutes champions, kills careers and arrests the attention of the nation. Norton’s Coin was never a Gold Cup horse. At least, that’s what everyone thought.

Come 1990, Griffiths was tending his cows when final declarations for one of the more prominent Cheltenham handicaps was announced. Norton’s Coin had missed the deadline and Griffith’s had (almost) blown his chance for another Festival winner. He threw a final roll of the dice, paying £1,000 for a late entry to the Gold Cup. A top-six finish would reclaim the fee. At 100/1, that was looking unlikely. As the racecard stated, Norton’s Coin was ‘more a candidate for last than first’. And on that day, the 63rd running of the race, Griffiths spent his morning milking his cows before loading the lorry and heading down to Prestbury. All the pre-race chatter had been about the reigning champion, Desert Orchid, with a further 10 fiercely competitive thoroughbreds to contend with. As the race unfolded, Norton’s Coin (pictured above) crept his way up the field. Over the final fence, he nudged ahead of Toby Tobias to win by three-quarters of a length in a tense battle with Desert Orchid falling away in third.

Not only did he become the biggest priced winner of the race in its history, but he smashed Dawn Run’s 1986 race record, clocking six minutes 31 seconds. In the winners’ enclosure, both trainer and horse were greeted with a beaming smile from an avid National Hunt fan, The Queen Mother. Whispers were that, despite hardly a soul in the stands backing the triple-figure priced winner, there stood one person who had…

HISTORICAL ODDS: 100/1 & 1/10

Norton’s Coin, owned by farmer Sirrell Griffiths, may have been the biggest-priced winner in Cheltenham Gold Cup history at 100/1, but what about the shortest-priced winner? Well, he was also owned by a farmer (technically), although one far better known. The Duchess of Westminster owned Arkle, who won the Gold Cup three times, being priced at just 1/10 in 1966. That’s a £1 profit for your £10 bet.

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