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The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of National Hunt jumps racing and a week that all racing fans look forward to. The prestige of the Cheltenham Festival is unrivaled with 28 top-class races spread across four days showcasing many of the sport’s best horses. There are 14 Grade 1 contests including the feature race on each day, the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers Hurdle and The Gold Cup.
Cheltenham has three courses, the New Course, the Old Course and the Cross Country Course. The first two days of the Festival are run on the Old Course, before switching to the New course for the final two days. The Cross Country Chase on Wednesday is the only race to be run over the cross country fences, a figure-of-eight course set in the centre of Cheltenham racecourse that crosses both the Old and New courses.
The opening race is traditionally the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, though things will be different this year without the famous Cheltenham roar from the crowd. Recent winners of this 2m event include Altior and Vautour who went on to prove real top-notchers and Shishkin, who was successful last year, looks well on his way to emulating them.
The Arkle Challenge Trophy is a race for 2m novice chasers and is seen as a stepping stone to the Champion Chase the following year. Willie Mullins often holds the key to the race, having won four of the last six runnings with Un De Sceaux, Douvan, Footpad and Duc De Genievres. The Henry De Bromhead-trained Put The Kettle On won this race last year.
The Ultima Handicap Chase is the first handicap of the festival and one of two staying handicap chases over the four days. The field tackle 20 fences on the old course and British-trained horses have been dominant of late, winning the race in each of the last 14 years. Jonjo O’Neill and David Pipe have been successful six times since 2008 while The Conditional struck a blow for the smaller yards when winning for David Beidgewater last year.
The feature race on Day 1 is the Champion Hurdle, the most prestigious 2m hurdle race in the calendar. Superstars Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon won it twice each in a golden era for hurdling four decades ago and three-time winner Istabraq has been the most successful contender in more recent years. Epatante gave Nicky Henderson a record eighth victory in 2020.
The Mares Hurdle is a relatively new addition to the Cheltenham Festival, established in 2008 as an incentive to keep mares in racing. Irish trainer Willie Mullins has won no fewer than nine of the 13 runnings, with six of those victories coming with the remarkable Quevega. His compatriot Henry De Bromhead won with Honeysuckle last year.
The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle is for four-year-olds who are generally thought not to have quite the class to compete in the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle. Aramax gave Gordon Elliott his third win in the race, matching the record held by Paul Nicholls. The pair have won the race in four of the last six years between them.
First amateur riders’ race at Cheltenham is the National Hunt Chase, Cup, which has been run more often than any other race at the festival. The distance was reduced to 3m6f in 2020 after just four runners completed the course 12 months earlier. Jockey Jamie Codd scored a post-war record third success on Ravenhill last year.
The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle kicks off the day and is often a stepping stone to either the Champion Hurdle or novice chases such as the Marsh Novices’ Chase or RSA Novices’ Chase. Previously won by the likes of Samcro and Faugheen, last year Gordon Elliot’s star Envoi Allen made his mark.
The Festival Novices’ Chase (formerly the RSA) is the novice equivalent of the Gold Cup and the most prestigious race of the season for staying novice chasers. In the last decade both Bobs Worth and Lord Windermere have returned after winning this contest to land the Gold Cup itself. Champ gave Nicky Henderson a record-equalling fourth success last year.
The Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle is one of the most competitive races of the festival. The winner needs to cope with the hustle and bustle of a field that usually features 20-plus runners and it also has to be a quality horse – seven times in the last ten years this has gone to a horse with experience in graded races. Supasundae went on from success here to score in Grade 1 company as did Whsper, whose trainer Nicky Henderson struck with Dame De Compagnie last year.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the most prestigious 2m chase in Great Britain and Ireland and has been won by some of the fastest chasers in racing. Nicky Henderson has won five of the last nine runnings of the race, including with superstar Sprinter Sacre in 2014 and 2016. His Altior scored in 2018 and 2019 and could bid to become just the second three-time winner after Badsworth Boy.
The only race not to be run on the main Cheltenham racecourse is the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, which has its own track in the centre of the course. The obstacles and raised banks make it a unique test. Tiger Roll won this on the way to landing the Grand National in 2018 and 2019 but was put in his place by French raider Easysland last year.
The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase, named after the father of champion trainer Nicky Henderson, has been switched to the Wednesday in 2020, having previously been run on the final day. Whatever the day, it invariably attracts a big field and is run at a fast pace which makes it a distinctive test – four of the last seven winners had run in the race previously.
Only race at the Festival not to be run over obstacles is the Champion Bumper. It is designed for horses who are yet to begin their jumping careers and is often a starting point for top-class hurdlers and chasers, including Cue Card and Envoi Allen.
The opening race is the Marsh Novices’ Chase, registered as the Golden Miller, and is the chase equivalent of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. The race has proved friendly for punters in recent years with no winner at odds longer than 4-1 since 2014.
The Pertemps Network Final Hurdle is an ultra-competitive handicap contested by horses who have earned their spot by finishing in the first six in one of a series of qualifying races. Sire Du Berlais has won for the last two years, making it three in a row for Gordon Elliott in a race no British-trained horse has won since 2015.
The Ryanair Chase is the feature race over fences on day three of the Cheltenham Festival. It is a Grade 1 contest over 2m5f and is the championship contest for chasers whose optimum trip falls between that of the Champion Chase and Gold Cup. It has been won by stars such as Un De Sceaux, Vautour and Cue Card in recent seasons. Min claimed victory in this race last year.
The Stayers’ Hurdle is the most prestigious race of the season for long-distance hurdlers and threw up one of the greatest starts of 21st century jump racing in Big Bucks’, who won it four times in a row from 2009 to 2012. The 2019 winner Paisley Park was a beaten favourite last year and bids to become the first horse to regain the crown since Inglis Drever in 2007.
The Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase is run over 2m 4½ furlongs. Though short-priced horses have scored in the last three years, the race often throws up winners at longer odds, such as Darna (33-1), Carrickboy (50-1), Holmwood Legend (25-1) and Something Wells (33-1) who have all been successful since 2009.
The Daylesford Mares Novices’ Hurdle has been a one-man show to date as it has been won by Irish trainer Willie Mullins every year since it was first run in 2016. Eglantine Du Seuil sprang a 50-1 surprise in 2019, pipping stablemate Concertista who went one place better last year.
The second of the staying handicap chases at the festival is the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup for amateur riders over 3m2f. Of late it has been dominated by Irish stables, which have provided three of the last five winners, while Jamie Codd has ridden a race record four winners since 2009.
The Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle is the championship event for four-year-old hurdlers. Four winners have gone on to land the Champion Hurdle itself, most recently Katchit in 2008, while Tiger Roll has taken two Grand Nationals. Last year’s Triumph had a remarkable conclusion as Goshen was ten lengths clear with the race seemingly in the bag only to unseat jockey Jamie Moore after the final flight.
The Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle has become a private 2m1f dogfight between two leading trainers who have not allowed anyone else a look-in in the last six years. Dan Skelton took the prize with Superb Story (2016)ali, Mohaayed (2018) and Ch’tibello (2019) in that time but Willie Mullins has matched him through victories with Wicklow Brave (2015), Arctic Fire (2017) and Saint Roi (2020).
Young long-distance stars get their chance to shine in the Grade 2 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over 3m, a race won by future Stayers’ Hurdle winner Penhill in 2017. The only trainers successful more than once since the race was founded in 2005 are Jonjo O’Neill and Willie Mullins who have both won it twice.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most prestigious contest in jumps racing, the championship event for long-distance chasers and a true test of stamina over a gruelling 3m2f. Most of the sport’s biggest names, from Golden Miler to Desert Orchid, Dawn Run to Kauto Star, have won it. The legendary Arkle triumphed three times in the 1960s and that feat was matched by Best Mate in the early-2000s. Now Al Boum Photo will bid to complete his own hat-trick after victories in 2019 and 2020.
The St James’s Place Festival Hunters’ Chase has a new look this year. Not only has the word ‘fox’ been dropped from a contest formerly known as the Foxhunter but it has also had its qualifying conditions tweaked due to the effect of covid-19 restrictions. This is usually the highlight of the season for those involved in the amateur sport of point-to-pointing, which is currently suspended due to the pandemic.
New for 2021 is the Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase, which has been added to the meeting in place of the novice handicap chase which has been dropped from Cheltenham and is now run at Sandown on the Saturday before the festival. The new race is a Grade 2 contest over 2m4f and is the third race of the meeting restricted to fillies or mares.
The meeting ends with the only race confined to conditional jockeys, the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle over 2m 4½f. The race commemorates the 15-time champion jumps trainer who won 34 races at the Cheltenham Festival during his record-breaking career. It is restricted to horses with a BHA rating no higher than 145 yet Champagne Classic, Killultagh Vic, Don Poli and Sir Des Champs have all gone on from success here to score at Grade 1 level.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle has a high profile due to being the first race of the meeting but also because it has a history of producing superstars. The Champion Hurdle is the feature race on day one, with the Racing Post Arkle and the Mares’ Hurdle the other Grade 1s on Tuesday. The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the feature on day two, with the RSA Chase and Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle also significant races on Wednesday. The Stayers’ Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase share the limelight on Thursday, while the final day of the Cheltenham Festival is all about the Gold Cup, the most important and most valuable race of the entire meeting.