It’s the pinnacle of British racing and for four days in March, all signs point towards Cheltenham. Prestbury Park plays host to the finest UK and Irish National Hunt racing, where Long Run and Kauto Star will both be in attendance as we reach Day Four and the ultimate highlight – The Cheltenham Gold Cup. But let’s not bypass the first three days and each of their championship races; The Champion Hurdle, The Queen Mother Champion Chase and The World Hurdle. In total, there are 27 races (14 chases, 12 hurdles and one flat or bumper races) spread across the four days.
Understanding the types of races can be a little confusing. Not to worry, there are only three types to commit to memory. Steeplechases or chases as they are often referred to, involve horses jumping larger obstacles called fences and are run over distances of 2m-4½ miles. Horses in hurdle races on the other hand jump smaller obstacles and are run over a slightly lesser distance of 2m-3½ miles. In each type of race there a minimum of eight obstacles to be jumped. And finally the other race to learn is called a “bumper” or a National Hunt Flat Race for horses who are in time expected to more into seasoned jumpers. The Champion Bumper – usually the final race on Day Two – is the only bumper run at the Festival.
So you’ve grasped the different types of races at the Festival, right? Now it’s time to shed some light on the highlights on each of the four days. These are known as the championship races and they bring together the very best chasers and hurdlers in the UK and Ireland. The Champion Hurdle kicks things off where last year’s winner Hurricane Fly will be out to retain his crown on the opening day.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase pits together a star-studded line-up of steeplechasers and two names to keep an eye out for are Irish challengers Sizing Europe and Big Zeb, who between them have won this race for the past two years. Day Three’s feature is The World Hurdle and Big Buck’s again looks the stand-out candidate for the race. And the final day’s championship climaxes with the Cheltenham Gold Cup which is the undisputed highlight of all four days. Arguably two of the best chasers of all-time, Kauto Star and Long Run, renew rivalry in this eagerly anticipated renewal.
That aside, the RSA Chase, Arkle Challenge Trophy and the Ryanair Chase are other notable races at the meeting. There are 11 Handicap races at the Festival which allows for more skill in the Cheltenham betting. A handicap race is where each horse carries a different weight which is dependant on their ability. Therefore a better horse will carry a heavier weight in order to make the race fairer. In essence, if each handicapped horse performs to their ability then theoretically they should all finish at the winning post together. This is the idea of a handicap race.
Novice races involve younger horses who have not won a race under a particular code prior to the current season. The very best novice hurdlers will be aimed at the Surpreme Novices Hurdle – the opening race of the Festival. That said, there is nothing stopping novices running in normal hurdles or chasers. Those star performers in novice races are often aimed at one of the championship races at the Festival the following year.
The four championship races kick off with the Champion Hurdle. It is run over a distance slightly father than two miles and is considered to be the most prestigious hurdling event on the National Hunt Calendar. Horses aged four years and older are
eligible to compete in the race and this year’s renewal promises to be fascinating. Irish challenger Hurricane Fly took the honours twelve months ago and looks sure to go close again in March.
Over the course of the race there are eight hurdles to be jumped and some of the previous winners of this race have had future events named in their honour. Winning connections can expect to collect a share of the £370,000 of prize money on offer.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
On the second day the focus shifts to the Queen Mother Champion Chase where two of the finest chasers Sizing Europe and Big Zeb look set to go head-to-head again. These two challengers have scooped this race for the last two year’s and will do battle again over two miles where they will negotiate twelve fences.
The race is open to horses aged five years plus and it is the leading minimum-distance race in the jumps calendar. Winning owners and trainers can expect to pocket around £180,000 in this Grade 1 event.
The World Hurdle
Big Buck’s goes searching for his fourth win in the World Hurdle on Day Three, and should he win, would eclipse previous record holder Inglis Drever’s three wins in the race. The race itself is run over three miles and is the first of the championship races to be run on the new course at Cheltenham. Twelve hurdles lie in wait for horses aged four years and older.
The race is another Grade 1 event – the more highly graded races attract more prize money and better horses. The winner of the World Hurdle will take home just short of £150,000.
The Gold Cup
All four days culminate in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – the most prestigious of all National Hunt events. The bitter rivalry between two-time winner Kauto Star and last year’s winner Long Run will spill over into this year’s renewal. There are 22 fences to be jumped over a distance of 3m2½f where horses aged five and older can compete.
It is the one event everyone wants to win and it is the ultimate test of speed, stamina and jumping ability. The race continues to serve up thrilling stories and Long Run’s success twelve months ago proved no different. He goes gunning for the top £270,000
prize again this year, but he faces stiff competition from a whole host of likeable contenders, none less than old favourite Kauto Star.