The Cheltenham Festival is the single most important horse racing meeting on the National Hunt calendar. A four-day meeting, the festival takes place every year in mid-March at Cheltenham Racecourse.
Known for its influx of Irish racing fans, the meeting usually coincides with St Patrick’s Day and offers tens of millions of pounds in betting revenue to the industry.
Over the course of its four days, the festival includes 14 races at Grade One level. Championship races include the Champion Hurdle on day one, the Champion Chase on day two and the all-important Gold Cup on the final day while on day three the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase share top billing.
Shown to a huge terrestrial TV audience, the “Cheltenham Roar” accompanies the start of the first race with the meeting always getting off to a raucous beginning.
Cheltenham Festival Format
Formally a three-day event, the festival these days is run across four days of top-class jumps racing.
Beginning on a Tuesday, the meeting runs up to and including Friday and precedes the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter which is run on the Saturday.
Each day features seven races with a mixture of novices’ events, hurdles, chases, a bumper, mares-only races, with Grade 1’s, 2’s and 3’s all included. Each day has a feature or ‘championship’ race for each of the major hurdling and chasing categories.
Day One (Tuesday)
Although the meeting is subject to change now and again, the basic format is pretty much set. As of 2022, the opening day of the meeting consists of the following races:
|Supreme Novices’ Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||2m1½f||Old Course|
|Arkle Challenge Trophy||Grade 1||Fences||2m||Old Course|
|Festival Trophy Handicap Chase||Grade 3||Fences||3m½f||Old Course|
|Champion Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||2m½f||Old Course|
|David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||2m4f||Old Course|
|Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle||Grade 3||Hurdles||2m½f||Old Course|
|National Hunt Challenge Cup||Grade 2||Fences||3m6f||Old Course|
Some of these races are registered under their proper titles, though are better known by shortened names or sponsor’s titles.
The Arkle is the most important two-mile chase for novices, the Festival Trophy is known these days as the ‘Ultima’ and the Fred Winter is known to many now as the ‘Boodles’, owing to sponsorship.
The Champion Hurdle is the biggest race of the day and is the pinnacle of the racing season for two-mile hurdlers.
Days one and two are run entirely on the Old Course which is known more for a reliance on speed, rather than stamina.
Day Two (Wednesday)
Although still on the Old Course, the day two races are much more of a mixed bag. The current schedule is:
|Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||2m5f||Old Course|
|Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase||Grade 1||Fences||3m½f||Old Course|
|Coral Cup||Grade 3||Hurdles||2m5f||Old Course|
|Queen Mother Champion Chase||Grade 1||Fences||2m||Old Course|
|Cross Country Chase||Class 2||Mixed||2m7f||Cross Country|
|Grand Annual Chase||Grade 3||Fences||2m||Old Course|
|Champion Bumper||Grade 1||None||2m½f||Old Course|
The Coral Cup, naturally a sponsor name, is a major betting handicap. The Baring Bingham is known these days as the Ballymore and is always under a backer’s name.
The Champion Chase, as the name suggests, essentially crowns the best two-mile chaser for the season and the Cross Country is a unique event which tasks runners with jumping 32 obstacles varying in nature.
The Champion Bumper is a National Hunt Flat Race, meaning the hurdles are taken away and the younger horses get a chance of Grade 1 glory before even having to take on an obstacle. Many go on to more Cheltenham success in the future over hurdles or fences.
Day Three (Thursday)
At the half-way point in the festival, the event moves over to the New Course. This course is synonymous with stamina rather than speed with Thursday’s runner taking on some stiff tasks.
|Golden Miller Novices’ Chase||Grade 1||Fences||2m4f||New Course|
|Pertemps Final||Grade 3||Hurdles||3m||New Course|
|Festival Trophy||Grade 1||Fences||2m4f||New Course|
|Stayers’ Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||3m||New Course|
|Plate Handicap Chase||Grade 3||Fences||2m4f||New Course|
|Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle||Grade 2||Hurdles||2m1f||New Course|
|Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup||Class 2||Fences||3m2f||New Course|
After the introduction of the Festival Trophy, known for all of its history as the Ryanair Chase, the headlines are essentially shared on Thursday between that race and the Stayers’ Hurdle.
The Stayers’ is the most important three-mile race of the season for hurdlers, while the Ryanair is run at what is seen as an intermediate distance of two-and-a-half miles. Those not quick enough to go for the Champion Chase and those who can’t stay 3¼ miles and/or are not good enough for the Gold Cup often go for this race.
The closing ‘Kim Muir’ is a handicap chase exclusively for amateur jockeys.
Day Four (Friday)
Although Friday is packed once again with quality, the focus is naturally all on the Gold Cup. This is the pinnacle of the jumps racing season and the race every trainer, owner and jockey wants to win, even above the Grand National.
|Triumph Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||2m1f||New Course|
|County Hurdle||Grade 3||Hurdles||2m1f||New Course|
|Spa Novices’ Hurdle||Grade 1||Hurdles||3m||New Course|
|Cheltenham Gold Cup||Grade 1||Fences||3m2½f||New Course|
|Festival Challenge Cup Hunters’ Chase||Class 2||Fences||3m2½f||New Course|
|Liberthine Mares’ Chase||Grade 2||Fences||2m4½f||New Course|
|Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle||Class 2||Hurdles||2m4½f||New Course|
The chase course is kept as fresh as possible on the last day for the Gold Cup. The ‘Blue Riband’ of jumps racing, the Gold Cup tasks runners to show a little of everything if they are to be successful.
Despite the stamina-sapping distance, some speed is needed in a race of this high class. Jumping ability is obviously crucial, balance is important as the field comes down the hill when the race gets going in earnest and of course the aforementioned staying ability is the final piece of the puzzle.
The Triumph Hurdle is a race for the ‘juveniles’, which at this stage of the jumps season means they are all four-year-olds, while the County Hurdle is a handicap and one of the biggest betting races of the season.
The Spa Novices’ is better known by it’s sponsor name, the Albert Bartlett, and provides not just future Stayers’ Hurdle contenders but also potential Gold Cup contenders too.
The Prestbury Cup
Given the nature of jumps racing, in that it is less international than flat racing, almost all of the world’s top jumpers are trained either in Great Britain or Ireland.
Cheltenham also relies on the influx of Irish visitors each year and with that, a rivalry has developed over the years.
In order to essentially celebrate that rivalry, the Prestbury Cup is a competition between the two countries. It runs from race 1 to race 28.
The Prestbury Cup is named after the village nearest to Cheltenham Racecourse and is presented to the jockeys and trainers from either Ireland or Great Britain once the winning nation is known. The tally of winners is shown after every race on television.
The cup was introduced in 2014 and in recent times has been dominated by Ireland. For real racing people it is seen as a good thing, though in the social media age we could argue it has been the cause of some division with watchers taking a rather territorial and football-like stance, supporting horses trained in their country rather than simply those they like.
Although Great Britain took the first two Prestbury Cup titles in 2014 and 2015, it has been won by Ireland every year since, the score of 23-5 in 2021 in fact leading to somewhat of an inquiry in Britain as to what has gone wrong.
Regardless of where a breeder, owner, trainer or jockey may be from, a result goes down as one for Ireland or one for Britain if the horse is simply trained in either territory.
Attending the Cheltenham Festival
In terms of the best day to attend The Festival, it really comes down to what you want to see.
It goes without saying that Gold Cup day features the most in-demand tickets, but each day typically sells out and so there is no quieter day to attend as there would be at the beginning of Royal Ascot for example.
There are several enclosures to buy tickets for, each with differing views of the course and the paddock and each coming with different costs attached. Using 2023 as an example, the following tickets are available:
- Best Mate Enclosure. Opposite the main stand and next to the winning line. Day 1-3 tickets are from £35, Day 4 tickets are available from £50.
- Club Enclosure. Tickets for the Club Enclosure offer access to all parts of the course. Ticket prices on days 1-3 are from £83, while on Gold Cup day they are a minimum of £98.
- Tattersalls Enclosure. Tatts, as it is popularly known, is seen as the middle ground between the Club and Best Mate enclosures. The minimum price on days 1-3 is £52, or £67 on the final day.
- Hospitality Packages. The various glass-fronted restaurants offer great views of the track. Packages are available from £368 – £860 over the first three days, or from £475 – £1325 on the final day.
Public car park tickets are usually sold for £20 per car per day, though traffic is notorious around festival time. Many buses give access to the track and can be booked in advance.
Strictly speaking, the Cheltenham Festival can trace its roots back to 1860. Back then, the National Hunt Chase was held at Market Harborough which kickstarted the meeting which was initially called the Grand National Hunt Meeting.
In the early 1900’s the meeting was held mostly at Warwick Racecourse, though did move around. A new track was established at Prestbury Park near Cheltenham and so the meeting was staged there in 1904 and 1905, though Cheltenham did host the meeting in 1861 as well.
Warwick took on the meeting once again between 1906 and 1910, but during this time major improvements were made at Cheltenham and from 1911 the festival returned to Prestbury Park and it has remained there ever since. Calling the meeting a “Festival” can be traced back to 1907 at Warwick, where it was given the title by a local newspaper.
In 1912 the Stayers’ Hurdle was introduced and the race stands as the oldest festival event to still be a championship race.
The Gold Cup was introduced in 1924 but back then it was seen as an undercard race in support of the County Hurdle. Even when it was called a championship race, many trainers still used it simply as a prep for the Grand National at Aintree.
Right up to 2005, modern day Cheltenham fans knew the meeting as a three-day affair. A fourth day was ultimately added in ’05 with the Gold Cup moving from Thursday to Friday.
New races were added and more followed until we reached the stage we are at now; 28 races being staged over four days with two on the Old Course and two on the New Course.
Noteworthy Cheltenham Festivals
There have been some festival meetings in the past that have made history, with the modern era in fact arguably providing the biggest talking points.
- 1983. Caroline Beasley became the first female jockey to wide a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, winning the Foxhunter Chase aboard Eliogarty.
- 2001. The Cheltenham Festival was cancelled in ’01 owing to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the country. Although originally postponed until April, a full cancellation was later confirmed when the disease hit the local area and forced an exclusion zone which included the racecourse.
- 2020. As the world was shutting down, The Festival was heavily criticised for going ahead. As evidenced by the figures from local hospitals, the cramped conditions at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival led to a major surge in coronavirus cases with a full-scale lockdown coming in Britain ten days after the meeting ended.
- 2021. A year after the controversial festival, 2021 was also allowed to go ahead but was staged behind closed doors. The lack of crowds meant a very different atmosphere. On the track, Rachael Blackmore made history as the first ever female winner of the leading jockey title, although she narrowly missed out on winning the Gold Cup. Three weeks later, Blackmore also won the Grand National and at the 2022 Festival she eventually landed the Gold Cup on the horse she finished second on the previous year, A Plus Tard.
In recent times, the Cheltenham Festival has taken on more and more importance, sometimes to the detriment of the National Hunt game.
While Royal Ascot comes at a perfect time in the flat season and means the best horses in almost every division meet there in June, The Festival is at the tail-end of the jumps season and means it is the sole major target for every trainer with almost all of their best horses.
The downside to this is that a trend has developed which sees trainers keeping festival hopes off the track for a number of months to look after them, meaning the public often do not get to see them.
The fact that the jumps season is arguably too heavily weighted towards Cheltenham has caused some controversy, especially since 2020 when Ireland romped away with the Prestbury Cup by winning 23 races to Britain’s paltry 5.
This would only get worse with a five-day festival, something that has been strongly mooted since the beginning of 2022.