CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL

NEWS
VIEWS
TRENDS
A PROPOSAL FOR A FIFTH DAY AT THE CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL
June 24, 2022
With so much heated debate about the rights and wrongs of extending the 4-day Festival, we have an idea that might satisfy all interests.
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The Cheltenham Festival was memorable for many reasons in 2022, not least due to the return of spectators after last year's lockout.

This year’s attendance figures were 68,567, 64,431, 73,754 and 73,875 - a record four-day total of over 280,000.

Perhaps the finest performance of the week was in the very first race, with the rampant victory of Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill.

In a race billed as one of the highest-quality Supremes' in years, the five-year-old's 22-length winning margin earned him the highest rating ever given to a novice hurdler.

But, once again, it was Rachael Blackmore who was the star of the show, becoming the first jockey in 25 years to win the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle in the same week:

‘IT’S THE CLOSEST THING TO FEELING LIKE A ROCK STAR I THINK YOU WILL EVER FEEL WHEN YOU AREN’T ABLE TO SING’

She thus emulated AP McCoy’s 1997 wins on Make A Stand and Mr Mulligan, while becoming the first female jockey to win the Gold Cup.

It was also the second year in succession that trainer Henry de Bromhead had won both of these feature races.

But it was Willie Mullins who led the Irish charge again, with an astonishing 10 winners - including six Grade 1 races.

He thus surpassed his own record for the most wins at a single Festival.

Whilst it wasn't the complete domination of 2021 (23-5), the Irish won 18 of the 28 races this year, including all five ‘championship races’.

Notably, amid a raucous atmosphere on Friday, there was a 'greenwash' of all 7 races.

And the highlight of week didn't disappoint - A Plus Tard's 15-length victory in the Gold Cup was the biggest winning margin in the Festival showpiece since Master Oats in 1995.

As ever, there was no shortage of drama throughout the week, including Shishkin folding in the rain in Wednesday’s Champion Chase, as Energumene prevailed.

While the final fence fall of the phenomenal Galopin Des Champs in the opening race on Thursday also sent shock waves through the packed grandstands.

It was a week that left everyone wanting more and we already can't wait for the Cheltenham Festival 2023.

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Hi, I'm Prestbury and you'll find me popping up across the site with useful Cheltenham Festival information and insight.   

THE GREATEST SHOW ON TURF

The Cheltenham Festival is the Olympics of jump racing and for thousands, being at Prestbury Park in March is an annual ritual.

It is played out against the backdrop of Cleeve Hill, making this one of the most breath-taking natural sporting arenas. It is, quite simply, the place where legends are made.

The four days of the meeting stage championship races in pretty much every discipline national hunt racing has to offer, be it over hurdles, fences or even on the flat.

There are championship races for novices (beginners) - the stars of the future - and the blue riband events that all jockeys, trainers and owners dream of winning.

They include the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and, the most prestigious race of them all, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

When discussing the greatest horses to ever jump an obstacle, a horse that hasn’t won at the Festival won’t even get a mention.

Instead, the Festival is inextricably linked with the cream of the thoroughbred crop - from Golden Miller, who won a record five Gold Cups, and Arkle and Best Mate who each claimed three, to triple Champion Hurdlers like Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq.

Every year, fortunes and reputations are made and lost at the Festival, which has served up some of the most dramatic and emotional moments of any sport.  

Nobody who witnessed it will ever forget Dawn Run’s Gold Cup in 1986, when the Irish mare become the first horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup.

Or Desert Orchid’s success in the same race in 1989, when he finally laid his Cheltenham hoodoo to rest and added the sport’s biggest prize to his already glittering CV:

More recently Kauto Star and Sprinter Sacre regaining their crowns in 2009 and 2016, respectively, will live long in the memory.

There have been exceptional human feats too, like Michael Dickinson training the first 5 home in the 1983 Gold Cup and Ruby Walsh riding seven winners in both 2009 and 2016.

There is one other ingredient that makes the Festival so special and that is the crowd. 

The phrase “The Roar” is synonymous with the wall of noise that erupts from the grandstands when the tapes go up for the first race of the meeting, the traditional curtain raiser, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

It's a roar that tells the world the 12 month wait for the best four days in sport is finally over.

ITV Racing recorded an average peak audience of 1.57 million for their 2021 Cheltenham Festival coverage. The Cheltenham Gold Cup was watched by 1.9 million viewers, the most since the much-hyped Kauto Star vs Denman clash back in 2008. 

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL HISTORY

Festival races can be traced back to the Grand Annual Steeplechase first run in 1834 and the National Hunt Steeplechase in 1860 - both still run at the meeting today.

Although it had hosted racing before, the course as we recognise today only took shape after Mr Baring Bingham bought Prestbury Park in the 1880’s and rebuilt the grandstand.

The Festival itself took root with a two-day meeting in April 1902, but it was not until 1911 that it became the permanent March meeting we now know.

The showpiece race back then was the National Hunt Chase, with the Stayers' Hurdle added in 1912.

The Festival was extended to three days in 1923, including the new Cheltenham Gold Cup, with the Champion Hurdle added in 1927.

In 1959 the 'National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase' was established - which was renamed the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1980.

Another day was added to the Festival in 2005, with five new races introduced, while futher races added since means that there are now a total of 28 overall.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL JOCKEYS

Cheltenham isn’t just about equine heroes and many of the sport’s finest riders secured their legacies by winning big races at the Festival. 

RUBY WALSH

The leading Festival rider of all time is Ruby Walsh who partnered with legendary trainers Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins to dominate the Festival from the turn of the century.

Walsh actually rode the first of his 59 winners here in 1998 as an amateur, and he went on to be leading jockey at the meeting no less than 11 times.

His victories include two Gold Cups on Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, and four Champion Hurdles - all for Mullins. 

By contrast, his three Champion Chase successes were all for Nicholls - Azertyuiop (2004) and Master Minded (2008 and 2009).

Incredibly, two horses contributed ten of his victories as he won the Stayers Hurdle four times on Big Buck’s and the Mares Hurdle six times on Quevega.

His last win came on the Mullins trained Klassical Dream in the 2019 Supreme.

BARRY GERAGHTY

Next on the all-time list is Barry Geraghty with 43 Festival winners.

Few jockeys relished the meeting more than Geraghty, who seemed to be able to up his game for the big occasion.

He was leading rider at the meeting twice (in 2003 and 2012), with his first winner having come abroad the legendary two mile chaser, Moscow Flyer, in the 2002 Arkle.

He went on to win two of his five Champion Chases aboard Moscow Flyer. 

Those five wins ties the all time record by a jockey and he also holds the record for most wins in the Arkle (4) and Triumph Hurdle (5).

His last Festival came in 2020, when he rode five winners for JP McManus, for whom he was the retained rider at the time.

Geraghty’s longevity and consistency really stand out and he rode at least one winner at the Festival every year between 2002 and 2016 - he was forced to miss the 2017 meeting through injury.

AP MCCOY

Arguably the greatest jump jockey of them all, Sir Anthony McCoy, is next on the list of most successful Festival jockeys with 31 wins to his name.

Given his numerical supremacy when it comes to winners generally, it is perhaps slightly surprising to see AP behind Messrs Walsh and Geraghty on the Festival roll of honour.

But he still had some magical days at Cheltenham and his win on Wichita Lineman in 2009 was arguably the finest ride ever seen at the meeting:

McCoy’s first winner came on Kibreet in the 1996 Grand Annual and he went on to land all of the big three, registering a final tally of three Champion Hurdles, one Champion Chase and two Gold Cups.

His final win was an emotional one as he rode Uxizandre to victory not long after announcing the fact that 2015 would be his last season in the saddle.

PAT TAAFFE

Pat Taaffe’s record of 25 Festival winners, which puts him next on the list after AP McCoy, is all the more remarkable for the fact that he rode in an era long before the four day Festival.

He is the only jockey to have won four Gold Cups, thanks mainly to his association with the great Arkle.

Like Barry Geraghty, he also rode five Champion Chase winners, including one on board another legend of the sport - Flyingbolt.

DAVY RUSSELL

Davy Russell is the leading Festival jockey still riding and his 25 winners to date have been enough to earn him fifth spot on the all-time list.

He is another of the top jockeys who really comes into his own on big race days and few riders have ever ridden this unique course as well as the Irishman. 

His first win at the meeting came way back in 2006 on board Native Jack in the Cross Country Chase, a victory that started a remarkable run that saw him ride a winner at every Festival until the sequence was finally broken in 2019.

Russell won the Gold Cup on Lord Windermere in 2014 having earlier partnered Tiger Roll to success in the Triumph Hurdle, a horse he later partnered to win two Grand Nationals.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL COURSES

When analysing form ahead of any Cheltenham Festival race few individual factors seem to be more significant than course form.  

The importance of the ability to perform at Cheltenham in general, and at the Festival, in particular, are hard to overstate. It is remarkable how many horses save their best form for this track and how many seem to relish returning to the Festival each year.

There are actually two separate tracks at Prestbury Park, with the Old Course being used on Tuesday and Wednesday, and fresh ground on the New Course being preserved for Thursday and Friday.

So how do the two circuits differ and what qualities does a horse need to excel on either?

OLD COURSE

The first thing to note is that the Old Course is a sharper track.

Lots of people talk about needing stamina to win at Cheltenham given the hill that runners have to climb on the run to the line, but horses also need a certain amount of speed because on the Old Course, over shorter trips like two miles in particular, the runners are always on the turn meaning that it is very hard to hold a position if you are on a horse that isn’t travelling. 

It is also hard to regain track position if you lose it, so a combination of speed and balance is very important.

This is further emphasised by the steep run downhill that confronts the field as it turns out of the back straight - if your rivals start to get away from you at this point it is very hard to reel them in and make up the lost ground.

Balance is also needed to safely negotiate the obstacles. The second last fence, in particular, can catch horses out as it comes at a point in the race when horses are starting to tire. It also comes quickly after the final bend and has changed the course of many big races over the years.

Another trappy area is the run of three fences down the back straight that includes two open ditches, with a plain fence sandwiched in between. Miss the first ditch and you can easily fluff all three and lose the race, even though it is still a long way home from here.

NEW COURSE

The New Course is more of a staying circuit with jockeys generally having a bit more time to organise their mounts during races here. 

So it is crucial to be on a strong stayer, but you need a good jumper too as there are some tricky obstacles to negotiate over both hurdles and fences.

On the hurdles course, the first flight down the back straight can catch horses out as they tend to start freewheeling after turning downhill away from the grandstands. 

Equally, the second last is also taken downhill, with the ground starting to rise shortly afterwards and the change in levels can see horses lose their footing, even if they jump this flight cleanly.

Over fences, after you have turned out of the back straight the next fence is taken on the hill, which can unbalance even the most surefooted of jumpers.

Whichever course you race on, one thing that they both have in common is the uphill climb to the line.  

This is where history is made, dreams are realised and shattered, and fortunes are won and lost.  

One thing is for certain - however well the previous ninety per cent of the race has gone it will all be for nothing unless your horse has the heart to overcome this final test.

REFERENCES

  1. Cheltenham Racecouse
  2. Oakley, Robin (2011). The Cheltenham Festival: A Centenary History