The Absolute Beginners Guide to the Cheltenham Festival

Cheltenham Festival LogoEvery March, the best horses in the world from the most prolific owners and trainers descend on a small market town in Gloucestershire, watched on by 240,000 people, give or take.

The Cheltenham Festival is the undoubted jewel in the crown of UK and Irish racing, featuring marquee races that many yards spend all year preparing for.

You might be the kind of person who has a bet once a year on the Grand National; maybe you like the name of one of the horses, or they carry your lucky number on their silks.

But the Cheltenham Festival….well, it can’t help but pique the interest, can it? It is the most bet-upon sporting event on these shores each year, and whether you want to get involved, enhance your enjoyment of the four-day meeting or take your colleagues to the cleaners in the office sweepstakes, here’s a beginner’s guide to the festival that bests all others.

The Racecard

There are four days of racing at Prestbury Park, starting on the second Tuesday of March historically (in 2019 that is March 12) and running through until the Friday.

On each day there are seven races, and these vary in prestige, prize money and length ran. Below is a quick look at the feature races of each day at the Cheltenham Festival:

  • Tuesday March 12 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Arkle Chase, Champion Hurdle, Mares’ Hurdle
  • Wednesday March 13 – RSA Chase, Champion Chase
  • Thursday March 14 – Ryanair Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle
  • Friday March 15 – Triumph Hurdle, Gold Cup

There are two courses at this Prestbury Park venue: the Old Course hosts Tuesday and Wednesday’s action, and is renowned for testing the speed of the horses with a shorter run-in.

The New Course, meanwhile, features the knee-trembling ‘Cheltenham Hill’, an almost vertical ascent that tests the stamina of some of the finest staying horses on the planet.

Which Horses Should You Bet On?

If everyone knew who was going to win the race, then there would be literally no excitement in watching the drama unfold, and there certainly wouldn’t be any bookmakers left!

Picking a winner requires a bit of research and plenty of luck on the day; particularly in races like the Gold Cup, where the field is stacked with quality from top to bottom.

So what are the sort of things you should be looking out for when placing your Cheltenham Festival bets? Here’s just a few items to consider:

1. Consult the Formbook

Like humans, horses have good and bad days too.

Clearly, those who have enjoyed some good performances immediately preceding Cheltenham are more appealing than those who we perceive as being ‘out of form’ or who haven’t run for a long time.

Sometimes the reasons for good form are obvious: a horse is simply very quick, or their trainer has finally found the right length of trip for them. It may even be something as simple as a new jockey that understands the horse’s abilities better.

Form is all relative, of course, so you have to decide whether a first place in a low-key warm-up race is as relevant as, say, a third place finish in a high quality affair.

2. Training Day

This may surprise newcomers to the race game, but certain stables and owners go through peaks and troughs of form too.

It’s always worth following those trainers that have been experiencing good results of late; that suggests they are getting the best out of their horses ahead of this showpiece occasion.

Of course, the Cheltenham Festival history books reveal jockeys, trainer and owners that tend to come up with the goods year after year.

Ruby Walsh, for example, has won the top jockey prize at the festival on eleven separate occasions; arguably, he would have made it 12 last year but for suffering an injury on day two of the meeting.

The leading trainer prize is also fiercely contested, with the Irish duo of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott typically taking charge.

Elliott has come out on top in each of the last two years, while Mullins was unstoppable in the four editions prior to that.

Have a flutter on an Elliott or Mullins horse, or a Walsh ride, and you won’t go far wrong!

3. When the Going Gets Tough

Put Usain Bolt on a mudbath and ask him to run the 100m and you will find he doesn’t get anywhere close to his world record best.

Indeed, there may be more powerful athletes who are able to give him a really good run for his money in such unusual conditions.

That is a rather extreme metaphor for how the going, i.e. the condition of the ground, can affect the outcome of a horse race.

Some love slick conditions on good or firm ground where their turn of pace is the key, others prefer soft or heavy ground where their stamina is the difference-maker, and some horses are so good they can run well on all different types of surface.

So take your time in researching each horse in the race, and discovering which surfaces they prefer. And remember to keep an eye on the Cheltenham weather forecast too!