Looking Ahead To Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Festival is viewed by many as being the first major horse racing competition in any given year. It takes place only a few weeks before the Dubai World Cup, and is followed fairly quickly in England by the somewhat more prestigious Grand National. But for years it’s been the first major occasion on the world horse racing calendar.
It is worth mentioning that the U.S. appears to be attempting to change this by holding a relatively new annual January race in Florida. The Pegasus World Cup Invitational thoroughbred competition was just held for the second year running in Florida. As one article mentioning Americans’ adoration of major sporting event noted, it’s already become one of the richest races in the world – worth a staggering $16 million in prize money. This almost makes it sound more like a golf or tennis event than a horse race, and really it represents some progress for the sport.
Because of the Pegasus World Cup, we can’t quite say that the Cheltenham Festival unofficially kicks off the year anymore. However, it does launch the European calendar for all intents and purposes, and beyond that it’s still a more prestigious event than the Pegasus in its own way. It’s a race that’s developed quite a lot of history and tradition over time, and that truly does make it as much a festival as a competition. And since it’s coming up in just a month or so, now seems a good time to look ahead at the action.
The Cheltenham Festival will begin on March 13th (a Tuesday, as always) and run for four consecutive days. The first day is essentially marked by a celebratory atmosphere as fans share their excitement that the action is all getting started. And while there are a number of races on any given day, the Champion Hurdle is essentially the prize of day one. Last year’s winner was Buveur d’Air, though no horse has won the Champion Hurdle in consecutive years since Hardy Eustace in 2004-05.
Day two at the festival is known as Ladies Day, and it’s when people turn the grounds into a sort of fashion show. Cheltenham is a little bit different in this regard because the weather can still be somewhat cold in mid-March, but people still dress to impress on day two, and you can get some idea of what to expect by looking back at the best dressed from last year. The fashion (particularly among the ladies) just about eclipses the action on the tracks on Ladies Day, but there are still several important races – most notably the Queen Mother Champion Chase. This race was won by Special Tiara in 2017.
Thursday too is marked by celebration – not of opening day or fashion, but of St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrating the Irish holiday has become a major tradition on the grounds (where people are never too shy to imbibe a little bit throughout the day). As a recap last year put it, fans are donning the famous green and downing the black stuff (meaning Guinness beer, a major sponsor of the event) throughout the day on Thursday, such that a true festival atmosphere takes over. Thursday’s races have changed somewhat but the Ryanair Chase is the premiere event – won in 2017 by Un de Sceaux.
The final day of the festival revolves largely around the climactic event on the tracks: the Cheltenham Gold Cup. While some of the other races that take place over four days are about as important in the context of the season, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is effectively the “championship” of the festival, and the grounds tend to be buzzing leading up to the race. Sizing John won the Gold Cup in 2017, though here too it’s been a while since we saw a repeat winner – since Bets Mate in 2004, in fact.
Altogether it makes for four incredible days of action, whether you’re in it for the atmosphere or the races themselves. It may not be the earliest major race on the worldwide calendar anymore, but in 2018 it should still feel like the one that really gets things started.