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 fans 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.

Billed as the highest-quality Supreme for many years, his 22-length winning margin earned the five-year-old the highest rating ever given to a novice hurdler.

But, once again, Rachael Blackmore 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 Cheltenham Festival.

Whilst it wasn't the complete domination of 2021 (23-5), the Irish still won 18 of the 28 races, including all five of the feature races.

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

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

As ever, there was no shortage of drama during the week, including Shishkin folding in the rain in Wednesday’s Champion Chase showdown, 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 eagerly awaiting the Cheltenham Festival 2023.

Our Cheltenham Races pages contain all relevant trends and statistics, plus details of previous winners and video replays.

We also have all of the latest Festival News and Cheltenham Results.

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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.

Played out against the backdrop of Cleeve Hill, a breathtaking natural sporting arena, it is quite simply the place where legends are made.

The four day meeting stages championship races in pretty much every discipline that 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 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 Gold Cup.

Or Desert Orchid’s success in the same race in 1989, finally laying his Cheltenham hoodoo to rest by adding 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 - the crowd. 

The phrase “The Roar” is synonymous with the wall of noise that erupts from the stands 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.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL HISTORY

The Festival originated from the annual 'National Hunt Meeting' which first took place in Market Harborough in 1860 and featured the National Hunt Steeplechase.

This nomadic meeting was held at different venues across the UK, selected each year by the National Hunt Committee.

It was first held at Prestbury Park in 1904 and 1905, which has been its permanent home since 1911.

A former medieval deer park, 'three fields' within Prestbury Park had first been used for flat racing from 1831 to 1834.

It hosted the Grand Annual Steeplechase from 1848 until 1853 - when the land was sold to a new owner opposed to racing.

But the Prestbury Park estate was bought by William Baring Bingham in 1881 and racing finally returned from 1898, with an official two-day meeting in April 1902:

The 'Cheltenham Steeplechase Company' was formed in late 1907, and Frederick Cathcart made clerk of the course.

Under his guidance, various improvements were made to the track and facilities, including a new grandstand in 1908.

When it again played host to the National Hunt Meeting in 1911, the substantial changes made to the racecourse helped ensure it would remain a permanent home of the Festival:

The meeting was extended to three days in 1923, with the Gold Cup added in 1924 and the Champion Hurdle in 1927.

In 1954 the first live television coverage of the Festival took place on the BBC, with Peter O'Sullevan commentating.

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

In 1964 the course was purchased by the Racecouse Holdings Trust, seeing off a real threat from property developers (and talk of the Festival moving to Sandown).

That consortium was headed by Johnny Henderson, father of current trainer Nicky Henderson.

The ‘New’ Course, which runs in a wider arch into the countryside, was first used in 1967.

The main grandstand overlooking the winning post was completed in 1979 and the parade ring with terraced viewing, plus the weighing room, were added in 1982.

And in 1995 the idiosyncratic Cross Country Course was added to the infield.

In 2001 the Festival was cancelled due to an outbreak of the foot-and-mouth epedemic.

Another day was added in 2005, with 5 new races introduced, while futher races added since means that there are now a total of 28 - compared to 12 back in 1911.

In 2015 Cheltenham Racecourse opened the new Princess Royal Stand, the final part of a £45 million redevelopment of the course.

Called the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival for many years, it wasn't until the 1960's that it started to be referred to as the 'Cheltenham Festival' in the press.

But the racecourse itself only dropped 'National Hunt' from the official title in 2005, renaming it simply 'The Festival'.

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 & 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 Cheltenham 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 (2003 & 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 every Festival between 2002 and 2016 - he missed 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.

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

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

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, 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 are 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 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 rode 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 90% of the race has gone, it will all be for nothing unless your horse has the heart to overcome this final test.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL FAQ’s

REFERENCES

  1. Cheltenham Racecouse
  2. Oakley, Robin (2011). The Cheltenham Festival: A Centenary History
  3. The Gloucester Journal (1902). Cheltenham Steeplechases
  4. The Leicester Mail (1911). National Hunt Festival
  5. The Daily Telegraph (1920). The Turf