Cheltenham is a considerable part of the racing calendar; for many horse racing enthusiasts, it is the pinnacle of racing. While some horse racing fans of a more casual nature focus on the spectacle of the Grand National and the glamour of that weekend, Cheltenham is for the purists, and there’s no doubt amongst professionals that this is the festival that sits at the very top of the UK calendar in terms of action, race quality, and drama.
With 28 races spread across the festival’s four days, there are multiple peaks and troughs for the trainers who spend all year training their horses for optimum performance, which traditionally takes place in March every year. For the bookies, Cheltenham is a staple of the calendar. It is often the horse racing odds during the festival that help drive hysteria, whether it’s an astonishing accumulator that comes in and goes viral on social media or the guy who didn’t cash out, let it ride, and have one of his horses ruin the whole bet.
While checking out the odds at Cheltenham Festival isn’t guaranteed to make you a profit, it indicates how people are betting and how the races might line up. However, there are always twists and turns and nail-biting finishes that defy the odds, and we will look at the top three today.
Queen Mother Champion Chase, Viking Flagship
Going into this Grade 1 steeplechase race, the bookies had Travado and Viking Flagship essentially neck and neck, with punters split right down the middle on who would come out on top. Many suspected a close finish, but nobody could quite predict how the race would form in the last 200 metres. Both horses were neck and neck going into the final stretch, and Deep Sensation, at 15/2, was right alongside them as they careered toward a three-way photo finish.
The atmosphere was electric, and as the last 50 metres developed, Viking Flagship did just about enough to hold off the other two gallant efforts. Often during periods when there’s a razor-thin margin between glory and defeat, the conditioning of the horse is what gives it that extra push to go on to victory. Although we have gone deep into the archives to find this one, it was one of the most gripping races of any Cheltenham Festival throughout the 1990s, and it’s one that experts still cite as one of the most intense finishes ever in the history of modern Cheltenham.
Queen Mother Champion Chase, Edredon Blue
Six years after Viking Flagship’s iconic victory, Edredon Blue, Direct Route, and Flagship Uberalles were inseparable, heading into the finishing straight in the same Grade 1 race. As Flagship drifted away in the last 30 metres, despite being the 11/10 favourite, Edredon Bleu and Direct Route finished virtually simultaneously, resulting in a photo finish that needed to be examined thoroughly. As far as close finishes come, they don’t come much closer than this. Henrietta Knight, who is a big name at Cheltenham and one of the most successful trainers in British steeplechase history, had her first win at the Queen Mother Champion Chase, thanks to the tireless work of a jockey you might have heard of, AP McCoy.
JCB Triumph Hurdle, Goshen’s Despair
For those who backed Goshen at 5/2 in 2020, this is one reminder you won’t be thankful for. After developing a commanding lead, the bookies looked at a significant financial impact due to late millions piling into the horse trained by Gary Moore, with his son Jamie in the saddle. With one final hurdle, Goshen lost his footing, causing Jamie to fall from the horse and A Burning Victory to come from behind at 12/1 to take the win.
The collective groan of despair as Jamie succumbed to a balance issue was evident right across the festival as many punters lost their money; the noise of the despair was then drowned out by the handful who had A Burning Victory to win at 12/1, who managed to snatch victory when it had looked so unlikely.
Boiling this question down to a top three is challenging; you could make a case for seven or eight finishes taking the mantle, and we’ve tried to cover some old races and some new to provide a fairer scope and an example of just how much drama continues to unfold at Cheltenham, and will no doubt continue over the next few decades.