For Horseracing fans in the UK and Ireland there is one race meeting which stands head and shoulders above all others in the Racing calendar – The Cheltenham Festival. This year it will be held from 10th to 13th March.
The Festival is held at Cheltenham racecourse which is nestled in a picturesque part of England known as the Cotswolds known for its immaculate villages, stone cottages and beautiful rolling countryside. The Festival can trace it’s origins to the 1860’s when it was held at various locations throughout England, however it has been held at it’s present location – Prestbury Park since 1911.
Held over 4 days in March which usually includes St Patricks Day on March 17th it consists of 26 races and is the climax of the National Hunt Racing season. National Hunt racing is also known as Jump Racing as the horses must jump obstacles along the way, be it fences or hurdles.
The very best horses from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and occasionally from further afield converge to do battle over a variety of race distances. It is the dream of every owner, every trainer, every jockey and every stable lad to have a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, all season horses have been trained with this target in mind, the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all their connections fixed on this one point. It is the pinnacle of Racing with only Royal Ascot coming close in terms of the quality.
The excitement starts to build as you get close to the Racecourse; firstly you pick up the Racecourse’s radio station giving analysis of the days upcoming races which helpfully takes your mind off the slow moving traffic which is starting to build as the morning progresses. As you arrive at the course into one of the many car parks you hear the buzzing of Helicopters overhead as the big players fly in for the day. You lock the car and head towards the entrance armed with a list of horses you think will win and enough cash to take on the bookmakers, for this war, you versus the bookmaker, your judgment versus his, winner takes all. During the course of the Festival it is estimated that a total of around £500 million will be bet on the outcome of all the races.
The crowd averages around 50,000 each day and is well dressed, tweed being the order of the day – jackets, suits, hats, coats, if they make it out of tweed someone at Cheltenham will be wearing it. Accompanying this will be the standard ensemble of the country gentleman, silk tie, brown Trilby; Tattersalls check shirt and brown brogues.
As you make your way into the racecourse you overhear people chatting away, they have come from far and wide to witness this spectacle from the 4 corners of Great Britain but there is one accent that you will start to hear more than any other, again and again until you start to wonder if you are in England at all, for the Irish have arrived and they have come in their thousands! With them they have bought hopes of many Irish trained winners and enough cash to back their conviction, they have also bought the fuel that will keep you going through the day – Guinness! During the 4 days of the Cheltenham Festival over 200,000.00 pints of the “Black Stuff” will be drunk.
You grab a Racecard listing all the runners and riders and head into the belly of the Grandstand for a quick drink and a breather, this will be the last chance you get as the races come thick and fast one every 35 minutes. You head outside into the enclosure in front of the Grandstand where the Racecourse awaits, its lush green grass blowing gently in the breeze, the ultimate test for horse and jockey.
The first race is about to start – The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, which horse and jockey will write their name into immortality, will this be the first sight of a future star, another Arkle, Dawn Run, Istabraq, or Kauto Star perhaps? You’ve picked the horse you think will win and head into the jungle that is the betting ring; you find a bookmaker and place your bet. You put the betting slip into a safe place and head to a spot where you can watch the race unfold and wait nervously.
The tension is starting to build as the horses start to form a line and walk towards the starter. He lets the tape up and you hear the famous Cheltenham Roar as the crowd cheer the start of this years Festival and the runners gallop off towards the first obstacle. As the race unfolds your heart starts to quicken, the horse you’ve backed is going well, he jumps the third last in contention and as he runs round the final corner you start to shout. You’re horse is in third as he jumps the second last fence, by this time you’re bouncing up and down with excitement. Then he comes to the final fence, he clears it and is in the lead – Just! You start punching the air, screaming for one more effort from your horse and jockey as they head up the lung bursting climb of the Cheltenham Hill to the finish line, the crowd is roaring too as horse and jockey strain every muscle, every sinew to get to the finish line.
You’ve won, your heart is pounding, you’ve witnessed horse racing perfection at the Mecca of National Hunt Racing and you’ve beaten the bookmaker – for now! Just another 25 races to go including the “Champion Hurdle”, “Queen Mother Champion Chase”, “World Hurdle” & the big one itself – “The Gold Cup”. Now where did I put that betting slip…