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The Racing Post beginner's guide to the Cheltenham Festival

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The Cheltenham Festival is the most important week in the jump racing calendar and brings together the best horses, trainers and jockeys in a test of the greatest equine and human talent the sport has to offer.

Across four magnificent days and 28 brilliant races – this year's festival runs from Tuesday, March 16 to Friday, March 19 – racing fans are treated to action of the highest quality.



In normal years the grandstands would be buzzing with excitement, but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic festival fans will this year be watching from afar.

There will be plenty of fun to be had throughout a frantic week, and if you're new to the Cheltenham Festival here's what you need to know about the four-day fixture and what makes it so special.


WELCOME TO CHELTENHAM

Paul Nicholls, trainer of Cheltenham Festival legends Kauto Star and Denman, on the significance of the week

The Cheltenham Festival is one of the great sporting occasions. People call it the Olympics of jump racing, but that's exactly what it is. It's about the best of the best.

If you're a trainer, owner, jockey, groom or breeder, you dream of having winners at Cheltenham. Rightly or wrongly, a season can be defined by how successful you are at the festival. In fact, it's what defines careers.

Cheltenham is a unique racecourse. It's anything but straightforward, full of ups, downs and anomalies. The festival is also unique, with the sort of atmosphere I don't think you would find anywhere else.

Paul Nicholls: "Everything leads to the Gold Cup – it's the highlight of the entire festival"

Most importantly, the festival is a celebration of great horses. In Politologue, we this year have a horse going to the festival for the sixth time. He has taken us on the sort of journey that everyone in the sport wants to experience.

Everything leads to the Gold Cup, the highlight of the entire festival. If you are in any way involved in the sport it's the blue riband, the thing that more than anything you aspire to be involved in. There is no feeling in the world like walking into Cheltenham's winner's enclosure after you've won the Gold Cup. I honestly cannot describe it, except to say that it's something I want to experience again.


FOUR THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

By Lee Mottershead, award-winning Racing Post reporter

1 Cheltenham is one racecourse with two main tracks. The festival's opening two afternoons on Tuesday and Wednesday are staged on the Old course, which finishes closest to the grandstands. It's then out with the Old and in with the New course for Thursday and Friday. This is to the inside of the Old course but it is also more galloping in nature. There's also a cross-country track, situated largely in the infield and used once during the festival on Wednesday.

You can read more about the track and the races here.

2 Whether you're on the Old or New course, Cheltenham is tough. It's also not flat. Horses face a significant climb as they leave the back straight before a sweeping drop takes them to the home straight. From the final fence or hurdle there is then a tiring climb to the line. The famous Cheltenham hill has changed the outcome of many a festival race.

3 Cheltenham is situated in the English Cotswolds. There are times when you might think it is in County Kildare. There may be no patch of Britain more beloved by the Irish nation than the racecourse otherwise known as Prestbury Park. Every year there is fierce rivalry between the two nations, with thousands of Ireland's racing fans normally part of the crowd and desperate to roar home an Irish winner – particularly if the successful horse has been heavily backed.

Paul Townend with his Cheltenham Gold Cup trophy after his 2019 win on Al Boum Photo

4 The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the sport's holy grail. The three-and-a-quarter-mile steeplechase, whose runners must negotiate 22 fences, has been won by some of racing's true icons, including Desert Orchid, Kauto Star, Dawn Run and Denman. Al Boum Photo this year seeks to win a third consecutive Gold Cup, emulating most recently Best Mate but most famously Arkle, the greatest jumps horse who ever lived and triumphant in 1964, 1965 and 1966.


HOW TO READ THE CHELTENHAM RACECARD

By Racing Post form expert Graeme Rodway

This information was originally published in our beginner's guide to racing

Reading the form sounds a lot more difficult than it actually is, and here's why.

The basics are actually very simple. A quick look at the racecard will debunk the myth that reading the form is hard. The silks are simply the colours each jockey will wear and denote who owns each horse, and then to the right we have the age of the horse and the weight they are set to carry in the race. Weights will vary if this race is a handicap – these are races in which horses are weighted according to their past performances – but in non-handicaps most horses will carry the same.

Further to the right is the trainer and jockey (commonly known once the final fields are confirmed 48 hours in advance). Some will place more importance on these than others. I've always been a big believer that it's the best horse who wins the race and not necessarily the best trainer or jockey, but that's a debate that continues to run.

So how do you find the best horse in the race? The string of numbers to the left of each horse's name are the form figures and they are places they have finished in their most recent races, reading from left to right with regards to their latest position. So if a horse has figures of 616111, it would have won its last three races but finished sixth the time before.

Generally speaking, the better the form figures the better the horse's chance, but that might be reflected in the odds – the probability of a horse winning according to the bookmakers – which can be found to the right-hand side in fractional terms. Taking 4-1 as an example, a successful £1 bet would yield a return of £5 – the £4 winnings plus the stake. A horse with a string of 1s by their name is likely to be a lot shorter in the betting than one with 0s, for example.

By doing those simple steps you've already started to read the form, albeit at its simplest. You already know that the better the form figures the better the chance and the shorter the likely odds. So we have come a long way without having to delve too deeply into the form book.

If you want to go a little deeper, however, you can click on the horse's name to access its profile page, which will show you past performances. Here you can see what races it has previously contested, where they were staged, over what distance, and where the horse finished. This will help you understand how the horse might fare in today's race.

One final thing I would urge you to do is to check the Racing Post Ratings, which are usually found to the left-hand side of the odds. These represent the views of Racing Post experts and, generally speaking, the higher the rating, the better the horse's chance.

If you can find an in-form horse, with strong recent form figures, a high Racing Post Rating and reasonably generous odds you could be on to a winner, so don't be afraid to get involved.


CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: TOP BETTING HINTS

A small bet on a race at Cheltenham can be a thrilling way to enjoy the festival action. While the more you know will generally enhance your chances of finding winners, even beginners can improve their odds by following a few simple rules across a frantic four days.

Here are four key rules from the Racing Post's Graeme Rodway, one of our top experts with a wealth of betting experience:

1 Don't get too carried away. During Cheltenham, I don't do anything different. The hype machine starts for the Cheltenham Festival the day after the previous one finishes and it's easy to get sucked into bad bets. The same principles apply to a Cheltenham race as they do any other in that you should always try to find horses who have a better chance than their current price suggests. The hype machine dictates that certain horses are available at shorter prices than they actually should be on form and that provides punters with chances. The final bit of advice is always the most important and it's simply not to get too carried away. It's only horses running around a field and, while this is the best four days in the jump racing calendar, there are more than 300 others and there's no need to have a bet just for the sake of it.

2 Pay attention to certain gambles. The markets are never stronger than at the Cheltenham Festival and it takes a significant amount of money for a horse to shorten appreciably. Therefore, big market moves at this meeting should be viewed more favourably than at most others and last year Imperial Aura (Northern Trust) and Dame De Compagnie (Coral Cup) among others were all the subject of strong support before their respective races. Don't miss out on following the money.



3 Expect the unexpected. The best horses could look bombproof all year long but the Cheltenham Festival is prone to throwing up some shock results. This is where the best meet the best and you can't always take a load of '1s' next to a horse's name for granted. The likes of Epatante and Envoi Allen rewarded short-priced punters with comfortable successes at skinny odds 12 months ago, but there were also shocks aplenty over the four days, most notably Defi Du Seuil's defeat in the Champion Chase. Not every 'good thing' will prove to be just that.

4 Don't be scared to back the second or third string. When a trainer with numerous talented horses enters two, three or four in a race it is common to dismiss them all other than the first string, citing that the rider would have had the choice and therefore the others aren't as good. This hasn't always proved the case in recent years, though. It's important to assess each individual horse on face value.



WHERE TO WATCH AND HOW TO FOLLOW THE ACTION

ITV will show six races from each day of the Cheltenham Festival this year. Every race can be watched on Racing TV (a subscription channel on Sky 426). Each morning ITV will also broadcast The Opening Show, which looks ahead to the day's action.

Here's how you can keep up to speed on the action with essential Racing Post products and stay ahead of the field:

Log in to view

You can watch every Cheltenham Festival race on your phone, tablet or computer by logging on to a bookmaker account and streaming via the Racing Post website or mobile app

Follow these steps below to get started: 

  1. Log in to one of your bookmaker accounts via the bookmaker tab at the top of the page on the website or via the accounts tab in the bottom right corner of the app.
  2. Go to a racecard. Eligible races will have a yellow 'Watch live when the race begins' icon.
  3. Click the red 'Watch live now' icon a couple of minutes before the race starts and you're off.

Racing Post newspaper

The printed edition of the Racing Post has been a trusty companion for countless Cheltenham Festival punters down the years, proving a vital source of information, winners and data. You can pick up your copy every day on the morning of the festival from all good newsagents during what is no ordinary Cheltenham.

Racing Post digital newspaper

The digital edition of the Racing Post newspaper gives keen punters a chance to get ahead, and is available for download from 9pm the evening before. Alternatively you can read it for free when you join Members' Club Ultimate – sign up with code CHELT21 to get your first month for £14.99.

It's available to access on desktop, tablet and app, and you can view a sample edition here.


Join Members' Club Ultimate and read tipping from the likes of Pricewise and Paul Kealy, all the big interviews and features, daily comment and news analysis – plus our Ultimate Daily newsletter. Click here to sign up.


Racing Post website and mobile app

Stay up to date with the latest festival news, previews, race reports and tips on racingpost.com and place your Cheltenham bets with seven bookmakers without leaving our brilliant mobile app. Our unrivalled race preview coverage and exclusive tipping advice will be available to read from 6pm every night. Don't forget you can also follow our social media accounts on Twitter (@RacingPost), Facebook and Instagram for up-to-the-minute news, tips, race reaction and more.

Racing Post Live (and other great shows)

Racing Post Live, in conjunction with Betfair Exchange, will be live each day of the Cheltenham Festival from 1pm.

Join host Dave Orton and special guests for live race reaction and top betting advice on every race at Cheltenham.

There are a host of other great Racing Post shows to enjoy before and during the festival, including our daily Racing Postcasts, What A Shout with bet365 (live each day of the festival from 9am), In The Know with Coral (live Monday to Thursday from 6pm) plus a special edition of My Festival on Monday, March 15.

All live shows are available to watch via YouTube and Facebook, with the Postcasts available via the usual podcast platforms.


Check out the Racing Post Cheltenham Festival microsite for the latest tips and odds for every race at the festival.


HOW TO PLACE A BET ON THE RACING POST APP

Getting your bets on via the Racing Post mobile app could not be more simple. Here's how:

1. Download (or open) the free Racing Post mobile app.
2. Log in to your existing bookmaker account when you first open the app, or via the 'Accounts' tab. You can also register for a new account.
3. Go to the cards, pick a race and once you've made your selection, simply tap the odds button beside the horse you like.
4. Choose your stake and tap place bet.
5. Watch the race live on our app.


WANT TO KNOW MORE?

The racecards
Find out more about the daily Cheltenham Festival races via our cards page.

The results
Get the latest racing results, including fast results on the Cheltenham Festival action, on our results page.

The tips
Get the very best advice direct from the horse's mouth via our expert tips page, featuring great free tips as well as exclusive advice from some of the best judges in the business.


If you want more on the 2021 Cheltenham Festival . . .

Virtual Cheltenham Festival preview nights: full list of events you can watch

Should punters side with the Willie Mullins favourite in the Supreme or not?

'He's extraordinary' – Nicky Henderson thrilled with Champ ahead of Gold Cup bid

Willie Mullins: 'Two years ago I'd given up on the dream of winning a Gold Cup'

ITV to show six Cheltenham Festival races live each day for the first time


For all our exclusive free bet offers and must-have daily promotions click the free bets button or go to racingpost.com/freebets


 

There is no feeling in the world like walking into Cheltenham's winner's enclosure after you've won the Gold Cup
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