In recent seasons the Cheltenham Festival has become the pinnacle of the National Hunt season with many horses’ ultimate targets lying at Prestbury in March.
This is somewhat different to the Flat season where Newmarket takes centre stage in early May, followed by the Derby, Royal Ascot, Newmarket’s July Festival, Glorious Goodwood, York’s Ebor Festival and finally Champions Day at Ascot in October. With the National Hunt season’s emphasis so strongly centred round the Cheltenham Festival it is no wonder that crowds of nearly two hundred and fifty thousand over the four days make the annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds in March.
This season’s Festival is set to run from Tuesday 10th March to Friday 13th March, with seven races a day set to provide a thrilling spectacle. The first day of the meeting, Champion Day, is headlined by the biggest hurdle race of the year, pitting the best two mile hurdlers against each other in which last season Jezki out battled My Tent Or Yours to claim the spoils. However, the tension starts to build well before the Champion Hurdle off time of 3.15pm, as the crowds start to build from late morning and the start of the first race, the Supreme Novice Hurdle is met by an almighty roar from the crown! The Arkle chase sees the leading two mile novice chasers battle it out and the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, which has seen the mighty Quevega dominate for the last six years, provide a fitting accompaniment.
The second day, Ladies Day, has the Queen Mother Champion Chase as its main feature which sees the best two mile chasers go head to head up Cheltenham’s famous hill to the back drop of the crowd’s cheering. The undercard is suitably competitive with the Neptune Investment Novice Hurdle and the RSA Chase giving both novice hurdlers and chasers the chance to make a name for themselves before hopefully returning to stake a claim for full honours the following year.
The third day, St Patrick’s Thursday, now sees the World Hurdle take centre stage since the Festival switched to being a four day event. The leading staying hurdlers from both sides of the Irish Sea, as well as France fight it out for top bragging rights, where last year More Of That finally brought Annie Power’s unbeaten run to an end, whilst maintaining his own at the time. The Ryanair Chase provides a Grade One opportunity for chasers of the intermediate trip of two miles five furlongs, with some extremely hotly contested handicaps completing the card.
The fourth and final day, Gold Cup Day, sees the blue ribbon of the National Hunt calendar run, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, run over an exacting three miles, two and a half furlongs and pits the best of the best against each other. Many a great horse as tried to claim the Festival’s top prize and those that are victorious are remembered for many a year to come, with multiple winners immortalised. Most recently, the great Kauto Star became the only horse to regain the Gold Cup, whilst Best Mate managed to equal the great Arkle’s tally of three consecutive Gold Cups, whilst Golden Miller won five!!
The Irish influence on the Festival should not be underestimated either, and not just for the horses, trainers and jockeys, but many thousands of Irish race goers make the trip across the Irish Sea for the Festival every year and it is fair to say it would not be the same without them!
The atmosphere at the races is electric, but it extends well beyond, into the town itself and the surrounding villages. From the Monday night, nearly every pub and eating establishment is full of racing folk discussing the upcoming four days, with tips, stories and plenty of banter flowing in all directions. The party carry’s on well into the night with many establishments obtaining late licences giving race goers every opportunity to celebrate their winners or drown the sorrows of their losers.
Win, lose or draw, there are no better four days in National Hunt racing and attendance is a must for all racing fans at some stage of their lives.