The Cheltenham Festival is not only the highlight of the UK and Irish National Hunt (jumps) racing season but it’s also a world-class sporting event. The four-day feast of horseracing attracts equine competitors and spectators from all over the world.
This year, none will come further than the hurdler Gorge who is travelling over from Australia for a race on Gold Cup day. The Festival is particularly popular with the Irish and each year thousands make the journey across the Irish Sea to visit Prestbury Park.
The whole jumps season is geared towards the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup which is the climax of the four day Festival on the Friday. The roster of previous winners of the race includes household names like Arkle, Mill House, Flyingbolt, Desert Orchid and Best Mate.
This year’s race sees Kauto Star and stablemate Denman in a clash that is being dubbed ‘The Decider’. This is the third time they have met and score is currently one all. Both are currently in top form and are unbeaten this season so it’s going to be hugely competitive contest. A victory for Kauto Star would mean three Gold Cups and would guarantee inclusion in the list of household names associated with horseracing.
Racing at Cheltenham started in 1815 and has had three venues. The first meeting took place at the current Prestbury Park venue in 1831. This followed violent opposition at Cleeve Hill, which culminated in the grandstand being burnt down! Originally, a course for Flat racing over three fields, the venue has two Jump racing courses with seven miles of running rail over 500 acres.
The two words that most often associated with the Cheltenham Festival are ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘atmosphere’. For some, particularly the Irish, the Festival has almost religious significance. Irish horseracing fans set out each year as pilgrims in the belief that their destination will provide them with something that they don’t already have and uplift them. They have faith that they will be the lucky punter that wins the Jackpot on Gold Cup day.
The Wednesday of the Festival this year is St Patrick’s Day so you can be certain that the town’s hostelries will be full of the Irish dancing, singing and drinking no matter what the results at the races. For owners, trainers and jockeys, their goal is to see their pride and joy win a race at this prestigious meeting. A winner at the Festival is the ultimate achievement for horseracing professionals.
There is nothing quite like the atmosphere of the Cheltenham Festival with its heady mix of excitement, hope, passion, bravery, drama and comedy all in the mix. The tension builds as you approach the course and the crowds of punters, gypsies selling heather and ticket touts begin to swell. There’s anticipation in the air that you are going to see some great sport and have a few winners.
The start of the racing is signalled by the traditional ‘Cheltenham roar’ that begins to build as the runners are lining up at the tapes for the first race. As the tapes are raised and the horses charge ahead the roar reaches a crescendo and everyone knows the meeting is well and truly off and running.
Horseracing and betting go together like cheese and wine and there are many tales of fortunes won and lost. Many of them concern legendary Irish owner JP McManus who allegedly won over £1 million at the Festival in 2006. More than £1 million in cash is wagered on course on each race with over 250 bookmake rs. The betting ring at Cheltenham can be chaotic at times, particularly just before races get underway. Hands outstretched thrusting notes or wads of notes at bookies are commonplace as punters rush to back the ‘good thing’.
If the favourite is in front a few minutes later as the horses round the final turn, the crowd starts to cheer and shout. If still in front at the winning line the cheering is joined by screaming and applauding as newspapers and hats are thrown skywards.
The crowd during Festival week is made up of many different types of people but they have one thing in common; they all know how to enjoy themselves. Over the four days 20,000 bottles of Champagne, 30,000 bottles of wine, 240,000 bottles of beer and 220,000 pints of Guinness are consumed.