The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of National Hunt jumps racing and the one week of the year that all horseracing fans look forward to. The prestige of the Cheltenham Festival is unrivaled with 28 top class races spread across four days, showcasing some of the sports best racehorses. 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 racecourse has three courses, the New Course, the Old Course and the Cross Country Course. The first two days of the Cheltenham 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 first day of the Cheltenham Festival, Champions Day, takes place on Tuesday 10th March.
The opening race is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and kicks off proceedings with the famous Cheltenham roar from the crowd. Previous winners of the race have gone on to be multiple Grade 1 winning horses, with the likes of Altior and Vautour among the roll of honour.
The Racing Post 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 five runnings with stars such as Un De Sceaux, Douvan, Footpad and Duc De Genievres.
The Ultima Handicap Chase is the first handicap of the festival and one of two staying handicap chases over the 4 days, consisting of 20 fences on the old course. British trained horses have been dominant in recent years, taking 17 of the last 20 renewals. Jonjo O’Neill and David Pipe trained horses are worth keeping onside with 6 victories between them since 2008.
The feature race on Day 1 is the Champion Hurdle, the most prestigious 2m hurdle race in the calendar year. Legends of the sport such as Faugheen, Annie Power and Hurricane Fly have all won the Champion Hurdle in recent years but perhaps the most memorable was three-time winner Istabraq between 1998 and 2000.
The Mares Hurdle is a relatively new addition to the Cheltenham Festival, established in 2008 as an incentive to keep mares in racing. Since its debut, Willie Mullins has farmed the race with 9 of the 12 winners, six of which were won by the same horse in Quevega.
The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase is set over 2m 4f and often won by a horse that will step up to 3 miles in time. In recent years the maximum rating for horses was shifted from 140 to 145, enticing better horses into the race. Course experience is a help in this race, with 7 of the last 10 winners having a spin around Cheltenham over hurdles or fences before their success.
Amateur Riders get their chance of Cheltenham glory in the National Hunt Challenge Cup, also known as the National Hunt Chase, run over 3m6f. The distance was reduced in 2019 after only four runners finished the race.
The second day of the Cheltenham Festival is Ladies Day and takes place on Wednesday 11th March.
The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle kicks off the day and is often a stepping stone to either the Champion Hurdle (2m) or novice chases such as the Marsh Novices’ Chase or RSA Novices’ Chase. Previously won by the likes of Samcro and Faugheen, this year the scene is set for Gordon Elliot’s potential star Envoi Allen to make his mark.
The RSA Novices’ Chase is the novice equivalent of the Gold Cup and the most prestigious race of the season for staying novice chasers. Seen as a trial for the following year’s Gold Cup, winners often go on to contest the feature Cheltenham race. Bob’s Worth and Lord Windermere completed the double in recent years, so expect to see some top-class horses battle it out up the hill.
The Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle is one of the most competitive handicaps of the festival. A race that regularly exceeds 20 runners, winners normally require the experience of the hustle and bustle of bigger fields. Quality comes to the form in this race, with 6 of the last 10 winners having experience in hurdles of Grade 2 or better, and only 2 winners in the last 10 below 11 stone in weight. Supasundae and Whisper both went on to win Grade 1 hurdles after success here.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the most prestigious 2m chase in Great Britain and Ireland won by some of the fastest chasers in racing. Nicky Henderson has won five of the last ten runnings of the race, most notably with Sprinter Sacre in 2014 and 2016, followed by Altior in 2018 and 2019 who bids to be the second horse in history to land the treble after Badsworth Boy in 1983-1985.
The only race not to be run on the main Cheltenham racecourse is the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, which has its own unique track in the centre of the course. The obstacles and raised banks make it a truly unique test, usually en route to the Grand National. Cheltenham Festival and Grand National hero, Tiger Roll, has won the previous two runnings of the race and will bid to be the first horse in history to land the treble in successive years.
The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter) is for 4-year-old hurdlers that haven’t quite got the class or experience to compete in the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle at present. Racecourse experience at a young age is key in the race, with the last 10 winners starting on the flat or having experience in France as a 3-year-old. Keep an eye on Paul Nicholls and Gordon Elliott, who have won 3 of the last 5 renewals.
The only race at the Cheltenham 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 last year’s winner Envoi Allen.
The penultimate day of the Cheltenham Festival takes place on Thursday 12th March, also known as St Patrick’s Thursday.
The opening race is the Marsh Novices’ Chase, registered as the Golden Miller and is the middle-distance chase equivalent of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. The race has proved friendly for punters in recent years with four of the last five favourites winning, including Vautour and this year’s Champion Chase contender, Defi Du Seuil.
Historically, the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle has been a race in which you would require older, experienced, staying hurdlers, with 7 of the 9 winners in the 2000s aged 7-9 years old. That has changed in the last decade, with 4 of the last 5 winners aged 5 or 6 and the top weights being of no hindrance. Holywell, Presenting Percy and Delta Work have shown that class and potential is more important than experience.
The Ryanair Chase is the feature race 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.
Seasoned staying hurdlers have limited choice at the Cheltenham Festival, which makes the Stayers Hurdle such a competitive heat. Stamina and speed often prove crucial as shown by the legend Big Bucks who won three Stayers Hurdles. Last year’s winner, Paisley Park, will bid to win back to back renewals for trainer Emma Lavelle and the ever-popular owner Andrew Gemmell.
The Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase is run over 2m 4½ furlongs, following the Stayers’ Hurdle. Whilst the last 2 renewals have seen short-priced winners, the race often throws up bigger prices, with Darna, Carrickboy, Holmwood Legend and Something Wells all successful in recent years and priced at 25/1 or bigger. The average starting price of the last 10 winners is 18/1, so don’t be afraid to take on the top of the market.
Owners and trainers are being encouraged to continue racing their mares, and as with the Mares Hurdle on Day 1, the novices’ equivalent on Day 3 is equally as important since its introduction in 2016. The Mares Novices’ Hurdle has been won by Willie Mullins each year with a red hot favourite until 12 months ago where surprise package Eglantine Du Seuil won at 50-1.
The second of the staying handicap chases in the festival is the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase over 3m 2f. The race is for dour stayers that are still relatively unexposed over fences, with 9 of the last 10 winners having no more than 2 chase wins under their belts before coming into the race. Contrary to the race before this, shorter prices often come to the fore, with only 2 winners over 12/1 in the last 10. Notable winners including Grand National winner Ballabriggs and 2nd placed Sunnyhillboy.
The final day of the Cheltenham Festival is Gold Cup day, taking place on Friday 13th March.
Juvenile racehorses are four-year-old hurdlers who have raced since the age of two. They often transition from the flat to race in this category. The most prestigious juvenile race is the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. In recent years, the race has produced four Champion Hurdle winners and Grand National winner Tiger Roll.
One for the speedsters, the Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle is the 2nd race on the card on Friday, over 2m 1f. Up until recent years, this was a race in which Irish horses dominated. However, Dan Skelton has trained 3 of the last 4 winners in Ch’tibello, Mohaayed and Super Story. Keep an eye on horses who have run at Cheltenham and competed in Grade 1 company, as all of the last 5 winners had experience at the course and ran at the highest level over hurdles at some stage in their career prior to the race.
The long-distance event on day 2 is the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Chase and often springs a surprise, with big priced winners the last six years. There is a big emphasis on stamina in the Albert Bartlett, with winners of the race often going on to compete in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Bob’s Worth and Penhill both landed the double in the last decade, but all eyes will be on Paisley Park who bids to win the race for the second year running.
Sponsored by Magners, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most prestigious contest in jumps racing. With prize-money totalling £625,000, it is the most valuable jumps race in Britain and Ireland. Connections can also win a £1 million bonus for winning the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup in the same season. In recent years, Cue Card came the closest to winning the bonus after winning the first two races, before falling at the third last fence in the Gold Cup. It is one of the hardest races to win and even harder to retain the crown. The last dual winner was Kauto Star, whilst Best Mate won three Gold Cup in a row back in 2002-2004.
The St James’s Place Foxhunters Chase is referred to as the Amateurs’ Gold Cup. Run over the same course-and-distance as the Magners Gold Cup, the Foxhunters is restricted to Amateur jockeys and requires runners to have finished first or second in two hunter chase races or point-to-point races.
The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase is the penultimate race of the festival and the final chase. Over 2m ½f, it can throw up some surprising results, no more so than 12-year-old Croco Bay in 2019. Experience at the course is key, with the last 5 winners running at the track over fences. Even more notable is that 4 of the last 5 ran in previous renewals of the race, showing a requirement to handle the fast pace and big fields that comes with the race.
The festival is wrapped up with the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle over 2m 4½f and is for conditional jockeys only. Often used as a stepping stone with only Blow By Blow being successful at an age above 6-years-old. The race has seen some classy winners, with Champagne Classic, Killultagh Vic, Don Poli and Sir Des Champs all going on to win Grade 1s after the race. Irish horses dominate the race, with 6 winners in the 10 years since inception and Paul Nicholls saddling 2 of the 4 British successes. The last 6 victors had all raced in Graded company over hurdles, so keep out for the class horses.