The countdown to The Cheltenham Festival is a wait like no other and if you press them hard enough, there are plenty of Jump racing fans who will admit that the anticipation to Cheltenham begins the minute the gates close on Gold Cup Day the year before. And when the waiting is finally over, Champion Day kicks it off in style, with four Grade One contests across the seven-race card.
There’s seldom an opportunity to pause for breath during Festival week, but the line-up for the first day has a particularly breathless feel to it, with each of the four top-level races having a knack for producing memorable moments. The feature is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a two-mile contest and the first of the five Championship races to take place across the four days.
The race is the ultimate test of speed and to scan down the Champion Hurdle’s roll of honour is to familiarise yourself with a who’s who of some of the greatest racehorses to have graced the hallowed Cheltenham turf. Hurricane Fly, Istabraq, Persian War, See You Then, Sea Pigeon, Hatton’s Grace, Night Nurse, Monksfield – the list is exhaustive.
The last two renewals have gone to the outstanding mare Honeysuckle. Rachael Blackmore created history by becoming the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle when the pair came home six and a half lengths clear in 2021. Further history was made in 2022 when Honeysuckle became the first mare to win more than one Champion Hurdle as she came home three and a half lengths to the good over 2020 winner Epatante. This time around Honeysuckle is set to face her toughest rival yet with the unbeaten Constitution Hill, who many believe to be Jump racing’s new megastar.
Run over the same distance as the Champion Hurdle, the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is a race which not only sets the tone for The Cheltenham Festival but also regularly produces a star of the future. In the case of 2022 winner Constitution Hill that could well be megastar. Winning by 22 lengths and setting a new course record time, it was truly a performance of epic proportions. Equally impressive so far this season with two Grade One wins, he is set to take on Honeysuckle in the Unibet Champion Hurdle in a clash of the generations like no other.
The Sporting Life Arkle Novices’ Chase regularly serves as an express route to the following year’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase while the final Grade One contest of the day has an ability for producing drama, and The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle made headlines around the world back in 2015, when Annie Power’s fall at the final flight fall denied a pay-out which would have cost bookmakers in the region of £50 million. One final flight spill is enough for any of us, but in the same colours of Rich Ricci and representing trainer Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh parted company with Benie Des Dieux in almost identical circumstances four years later in 2019.
By 6pm on Tuesday it is time to take stock at the end of a breath-taking day’s racing… and to get ready to do it all again on Wednesday.
If Champion Day is about setting the scene for four extraordinary days of racing, Festival Wednesday delivers sensational sport – at speed. And few races on the Jump racing calendar capture fans’ imagination quite like the feature, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Run over a distance of two miles, the Grade One contest requires a blend of speed and an ability to be inch-perfect when meeting each of the 13 fences at rapid pace on Cheltenham’s Old Course.
This demanding checklist means that winning this race on multiple occasions is not uncommon and famous multiple winners of the trophy include legends of the sport like Flyingbolt, Altior, Sprinter Sacre, Master Minded, Moscow Flyer and Viking Flagship.
Last year saw a notable omission firmly corrected when The Cheltenham Festival’s most successful trainer, Willie Mullins, finally saddled the winner of the last remaining Championship contest to have eluded him courtesy of Energumene.
Further Group One action comes in the shape of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase. Both races are renowned for producing stars of the future – a theme which continues to the finale, the Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
Winners of the Champion Bumper regularly go on to become household names and no less than 11 of trainer Willie Mullins’ record 88 Festival winners have come in this race including in 2022 with Facile Vega.
Festival Wednesday also offers something unique in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. It’s usually all about the winners at The Cheltenham Festival but last year’s runner-up in this race came home to a reception never seen before for an also ran. That is because the runner-up was the horse that has truly transcended racing in recent years – Tiger Roll.
Making his eighth Festival appearance and chasing his sixth Festival win, owner Michael O’Leary had already said that this race would be his swansong. It looked as if the script had been written perfectly as he led turning for home. With the rain softened ground not in his favour the final half-furlong was just a fraction too much for the old warrior and he had to give way by three-quarters of a length – ironically to his stablemate Delta Work.
One thing is for certain – as Festival Wednesday draws to a close and we reach the half-way stage of The Festival, it’s as much about looking forward to two more days of extraordinary as it is looking back at the 14 thrilling races we have already enjoyed.
St Patrick’s Thursday
Every headline act needs a good supporting cast and if Gold Cup Day is the big hitter at The Cheltenham Festival, there aren’t many better precursors than St Patrick’s Thursday.
Any regular Festival-goer will tell you that Cheltenham is not Cheltenham without Irish participation – Four Days of Extraordinary simply wouldn’t be as extraordinary without them – and St Patrick’s Thursday is our homage to our friends from the Emerald Isle.
It doesn’t always fall on the real St Patrick’s Day of course and 24 hours early in 2023. It features two Championship contests with both races have a distinctly Irish feel to them to boot, with the Ryanair Chase and the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle both sponsored by Irish businesses which have loyally supported The Cheltenham Festival for years.
This day is a true celebration of everything Irish, though Ireland’s hugely successful yards took things a little too literally in 2021, winning 23 of the week’s 28 races.
As you’d perhaps suspect, the standings for the Prestbury Cup – a trophy which is hotly-contested between British and Irish runners – begin to take shape on Day Three and any Irish winner that is able to charge up that Cheltenham Hill is met with an even more affectionate boom of noise from the crowd than usual.
Thursday’s card is unique in that is the only one across the four days which features two Championship races, the Ryanair Chase and the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, which are held back-to-back – meaning that the only people busier than the bar staff in the Guinness Tents are the jockeys themselves!
Allaho produced one of the performances of the week when winning the Ryanair Chase by some 12 lengths in 2021 and last year was even more impressive as he came home 14 lengths clear to become only the contest’s second dual winner.
It was also a case of more of the same in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle last year with Flooring Porter repeating his 2021 success and receiving the reception only an Irish winner on St Patrick’s Thursday can.
The supporting contests include the Grade One Turners Novices’ Chase and the Grade Two Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle which will pay tribute to Jack de Bromhead in 2023.
Gold Cup Day
As we head into the final day of The Cheltenham Festival, the action is brought to a gripping crescendo on Gold Cup day. This is the day which for many the whole season has been building towards and the feature is horseracing’s Blue Riband event, the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Ask any Jump jockey, trainer or owner what one race in the season is more prestigious than any other and their answer will be the same. Because, while the Randox Grand National is an iconic spectacle, the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, which celebrates its centenary this year, brings the very best together to compete for the biggest prize of them all.
Racing analysts will use the term ‘Championship’ pace when talking about the big races at The Cheltenham Festival and that rings particularly true with the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, testing the mettle of stayers looking to step up to the big leagues by seeing if they can add substance to their stamina over the three and a quarter miles trip.
And perhaps the most significant statistic to demonstrate how hard the race is to win is that only eight horses have been successful more than once since it was first run in 1924. Legends to have won the great trophy more than once include Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009 – the only horse to regain the Gold Cup; Best Mate in 2002, 2003 and 2004; L’Escargot in 1970 and 1971; Arkle in 1964, 1965 and 1966, and Golden Miller in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936. The most recent multiple winner was Al Boum Photo, who triumphed in 2019 and 2020.
The 2022 running once again saw Rachael Blackmore write her name in history to become the first successful female jockey in the Gold Cup when A Plus Tard, the 2021 runner-up, reversed placings with Minella Indo in spectacular style to win as he liked by 15 lengths.
While Day Four of The Cheltenham Festival might be misconstrued by some as being all about one race, nothing could further from the truth. Friday begins with the Grade One JCB Triumph Hurdle, a race which has a knack for producing thrilling finishes and stars of the future in equal measure.
Also on the card is the St James’s Place Festival Hunters’ Chase. The race is known as the ‘Gold Cup for amateur riders’ due to being run over the same distance as the feature contest. It channels a traditional Corinthian spirit which very few other sports are able to replicate.
It is then up to the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle to bring the curtain down.
No matter whether you are there to witness it, the final runner passing the winning post signals not only the end of four days like no other, but also the beginning of a 12 month countdown…