The biggest week in the horse racing calendar is fast approaching with the 2023 Cheltenham Festival due to take place from Tuesday to Friday 14-17 March.
The best horses, jockeys, and trainers converge on the Gloucestershire racetrack, also referred to as Prestbury Park, for top class racing, split between chases and hurdles, at this iconic meeting.
It attracts over a quarter of a million fans through the gates from all around the world, over its four days. In addition, millions will also watch the racing either on terrestrial television, or through live internet streaming.
More than £6m in prize money will be competed for by up to 500 horses in 28 races (seven each day), which feature as many as 14 Grade 1 listed events.
Festival top of the spectacles
There are some wonderful sporting events that take place annually in the UK, with one off contests such as the FA Cup Final, the Epsom Derby, The Grand National Steeplechase, and the British Grand Prix being single day highlights; with the likes of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the British Open Golf tournament capturing the imagination for events over a longer period.
However, for a real spectacle, the Cheltenham Festival takes some beating for popularity and the repeated thrills its generates, over the course of its four days of top class horse racing.
Four days of wonderful racing
Set in the heart of the Cotswolds, the Festival is a glorious celebration of everything that is great about the sport of kings. Each of the four days is special in its own right, with the opening day always generating enormous excitement, followed by Ladies Day, then St Patrick’s Day, and concluding with Gold Cup Day.
British and Irish based horses will as usual form the bulk of runners as they compete between themselves for the Prestbury Cup to recognise which of the two can record the most winners. In 2022 it was the Irish trainers who prevailed, winning 18, compared to the 10 of the British.
Over 100 years of top class races
The Festival has been held in the spa town for well over 100 years. It was first held in 1911 when when the National Hunt Committee agreed to allow the meeting to remain year-on-year at Cheltenham, rather than continue an established tradition which was to take it on an annual tour.
A man by the name of Frederick Cathcart is credited with doing more than anyone else to make Cheltenham the headquarters of jump racing.
Initially it would be just a two day affair, but such was Mr Cathcart’s enthusiasm and direction that by 1923 it had grown to a three-day meeting, and this would remain the case right up to 2005, when an additional day was tagged on to the end to make it a four-day celebration.
Thanks to Mr Cathcart’s vision
It was in 1924 that the three and a quarter mile Gold Cup steeplechase was introduced, a race now that is the blue riband event of the Festival, topping a host of high quality races. Mr Cathcart died in 1934, aged 74, with his legacy already firmly implanted into the UK’s sporting calendar.
Arkle takes the crown
Pre-Second World War and right up to the 1960’s a horse named Golden Miller was the star horse of the meeting, winning the Gold Cup five times during the thirties; but then along came arguably the greatest horse ever to run over the Prestbury Park course… Arkle.
Arguably the best ever
The Irish legend became the first horse to win three consecutive Gold Cups, his official rating of 212 remains the highest ever achieved by a steeplechaser, and he is honoured with a special statue at the track, together with similar sculptures of three other greats: Best Mate, Dawn Run and of course Golden Miller.
There have been so many fabulous horses grace the course, but others worthy of special mention are Mill House, Istabraq, Kauto Star and Desert Orchid who all endeared themselves to the watching and betting public, many of whom earned a great deal of money due to their brilliance.
Every day a winner
Each day of the Festival the standard of racing is of the highest quality, with at least one major race, supported by several others which at any other meeting, would undoubtedly take the centre stage. On the first day there is a race in Arkle’s name prior to the Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, regarded by many as the meeting second highest profile contest.
Ladies Day sees the Queen Mother Champion Chase run over a distance of 2 miles and sees the field needing to negotiate 12 fences over that distance; it is supported by the Coral Cup, as the opportunity to dress up, weather permitting, is very much taken advantage of by a crowd that will usually top 65,000, not just that day, but every day of the Festival.
By contrast, the third day, which is dedicated to St Patrick, is very much for the Irish contingent who come over in their droves to create an incredible atmosphere. The Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, which is used as a barometer to crown the leading horse in the hurdling division, as well as the Ryanair Chase, are the two big races of the day.
This all builds up to the final day and the Gold Cup, regarded throughout the racing world as one of the greatest events anywhere.
Betting reaches frenzied proportions
As by a long way, the Festival is the biggest racing event of the year for the industry, betting is naturally massive, but nevertheless, the figures that are reported for bets placed on the 28 races are mind-boggling. It is estimated that over £500 million will be gambled over the four days, indeed it is recognised that of the 28 races, 25 of them usually find themselves into the top 40 of the highest turnover races of the entire year.
Best tip is to stick with first choice
There are so many top class horses making their way to the event that most of the races will be tough to call, but that is not to say that there are not many tips flying around already. Some horses are entered in more than one race initially and a last minute decision will be made as to which race they actually go in, with conditions of course and horse taken into account, and this of course can be problematic when it comes to forecasting.
Could be a “grand” winner in the big race
The big race has many opinions being offered with many suggesting last years winner A Plus Tard can repeat the heroics of 12 months ago and triumph again. The class horse and early favourite in the race is Galopin Des Champs; however one which looks a very good bet is Minella Indo who was runner up in 2022 and seem massively over-priced this time around and certainly would make a fabulous each-way selection. That said, with conditions likely to be quite testing, a smart choice might be last years Grand National winner Noble Yeats, who could outstay the lot of them.
So many quality horses makes forecasts extremely tricky
In the other races it is very easy to overthink betting choices, as there are so many in with realistic chances, making any tips worth varying degrees of value. Flooring Porter in the Paddy Power Stayers’ is one that has a great chance and should go well. Those expected to run well and justify their favouritism include: Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle; Gaillard du Mesnil in the National Hunt Chase; Gerri Colombe in the Brown Advisory Chase; and Facile Vega in the Novice Hurdle.
Horses currently second or third in the betting and quietly fancied by those in the know are the likes of Lossiemouth in the Triumph Hurdle; Energumene in the Champion Chase; Galvin in the Cross Country Chase; and Banbridge in the Turners Novice Chase.
Under the radar and not without a chance
Horses with a bit to find, but expected to do so and as a consequence run themselves in to the reckoning, are Love Envoi in the Mares Hurdle – who although is competing against well-fancied Honeysuckle and Epatante, has shown plenty of promise – and Oscar Elite in the Ultima Handicap.
Other who are under the radar to some extent, but nonetheless are in with genuine chances include: Sharjah in the County Hurdle; Inthepocket in the Ballymore Hurdle; Rough Vif in the Grand Annual Chase; Ga Law in the Ryanair; and Walking on Air in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle.
Anyone looking for something of an outsider to cause a shock might want to take a look at Stay Away Fay in the Albert Bartlett, Straw Fan Jack in the Arkle, and Sporting John in the Coral Cup. They are well down the odds, but their stables have been making favourable noises about their chances.
There will be surprises, as there always is. Some horses will simply fail to handle the track. Conversely, others will suddenly feel right at home and respond to the course, but that is the beauty of horse racing.
Town’s big revenue event
For many in the town of Cheltenham, the Festival week is what they have come to rely on, and in a lot of cases they work their annual budgets around the significant revenue it brings in. It is believed that in the region of £50 million is generated for local hotels, pubs, clubs, shops, and restaurants in the largest single gross-income event in the whole of the county, during any one year.
The Cheltenham Festival is without doubt, one of the world’s most anticipated racing spectacles.