FOR THE NEXT four days, large sections of the Irish population will be consumed by the most famous horse-racing festival of them all – Cheltenham.
But what if you don’t have the first clue about horse-racing? Well, you should check out our very nifty beginners’ guide to the festival which tells you pretty much everything you could want to know.
What is Cheltenham?
Cheltenham is an annual four-day horse racing festival which takes place at Prestbury Park, a racecourse in South-West England. The meeting is the showpiece of the National Hunt racing calendar – jumps racing that is, rather than flat – and is considered to be the showcase event for the best British and Irish racing talent.
Cheltenham takes place every year in the middle of March and usually coincides with St. Patrick’s Day. Until 2005, the races took place over the course of three days from Tuesday to Thursday. However, the meeting was so popular that it was extended to include a fourth day and now runs from Tuesday to Friday.
There are seven different races each day. Racing starts at 13:30 each day and the races are usually scheduled at 35-minute intervals, meaning that the final race starts at about 17:15 most evenings.
What are the big races?
Although there are quite a lot of high-quality races, the four which really stand out from the pack are the festival’s feature races – the Champion Hurdle (Tues), the Queen Mother Champion Chase (Weds), the World Hurdle (Thurs), and the Cheltenham Gold Cup (Fri). These are scheduled to begin at 15:20 each day, with a total of £500,000 of prize money at stake in the Gold Cup.
Who are the horses to look out for?
Among the horses, the ones that you should really know are the defending champions.
The Champion Hurdle was blown wide open at the weekend when last year’s champion, Binocular, was withdrawn. There are plenty of contenders ready to step into the champion’s shoes however – the Willie Mullins-trained Hurricane Fly, the unbeaten Peddlers Cross and Philip Hobbs’ Menorah are all tipped to run well.
Irish-trained Big Zeb won the Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, defeating the Paul Nicholls-trained Master Minded who was hoping to make it three wins out of three in the race. The two will face off again in this year’s renewal with the bookies giving Big Zeb a slight advantage.
Another champion trained by Paul Nicholls is Big Buck’s, who will be hoping to complete a hat-trick of World Hurdle titles on Thursday. This horse is good – so good in fact that Boylesports have already paid anyone who backed him to win the race. There’s always the potential for a shock though, so don’t be surprised if a horse like Grands Crus or Mourad runs him very close.
Imperial Commander caused a bit of a surprise when he easily won last year’s Gold Cup and he will be aiming to repeat that success again. The race is jam-packed with talent though, not least Kauto Star who has won the race twice in the past and is considered to be one of the finest chasers of all time.
Long Run and Denman will also fancy their chances, while Irish eyes will be keeping tabs on Willie Mullins’ Kempes and Noel Meade’s Pandorama, both of whom have a chance.
The only jockey I know is Ruby Walsh – will he be there?
Yes, Ruby will be there. Although he only recently returned from injury, he wouldn’t miss Cheltenham for the world. Since 1998, he has ridden a staggering 27 winners at the festival (the highest total by any jockey) and was the leading jockey in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Ruby isn’t the only Irish jockey who’ll be taking part – there are loads. Keep an eye on Barry Geraghty and Paul Townend, both of whom have a number of high-profile rides over the four days and could end the week with a nice collection of winners.
It’s not even on in Ireland – why do we like it so much?
Because we’re really good at it. At least 10,000 punters travel over from Ireland to roar on the Irish horses, and it usually works.
Our best year so far was in 2006 when we had a massive ten winners including three of the festival’s feature events – Brave Inca (Champion Hurdle), Newmill (Queen Mother Champion Chase) and War of Attrition (Gold Cup).