Horse racing is a big deal in the UK. That’s a given when you consider it hosts some of the oldest and most prestigious races in the world – The Derby, The Grand National, The Gold Cup, The Oaks, and so on. Those events get international attention, with the races contested by the world’s leading trainers, jockeys and horse owners.
And yet, if you ask the average UK bettor to name their favourite event, they won’t care about the elaborate pomp and ceremony of Royal Ascot, nor the history of the Derby. For them, the pinnacle of horse racing is the Cheltenham Festival, an event that barely gets a mention in media outside of the British Isles.
So, why does it hold such allure? Here’s our quick guide to why the Cheltenham Festival is so popular, and what you should expect when the event takes place from March 10th – 13th 2020.
It celebrates a unique horse racing discipline
National hunt racing is all but unknown away from the British Isles, but its proponents claim it’s a more thrilling form of competition. The races involve hurdles or fences, and they are usually contested over longer distances than flat racing (2-3 miles). The fact that the horses must jump the (surprisingly high) obstacles at top speed means the race is never truly over. That keeps fans on the edge of their seats.
Heroes are built-up over the years
If you follow US horse racing, you’ll be aware that the stars of the last decade were American Pharoah and Justify. Neither of those horses raced past the age of three, as the practice in flat racing is to put the superstars into stud as soon as possible. That’s not the case for national hunt racing, where horses’ careers can go on for a decade. The upshot is that fans build up relationships with horses who have done the business time and time down the years.
A High Concentration of Great Races
The Festival holds 28 races across the four days, but there isn’t much filler. Fourteen of those races are Grade 1 contests, meaning they feature the best horses in the business. In the 2020 event, we will see the likes of Altior (7/2 for the Champion Chase), the legendary Faugheen (7/1 for the Marsh Novices’ Chase) and Clan Des Obeaux (8/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup) in action. You can get more information on the races at 888 Sport’s Cheltenham page, but suffice to say that the event features some of the biggest names in the business.
The Invasion of the Irish
While set in the heart of England, the Cheltenham Festival is by no means an-all British affair. Each year, dozens of Irish trainers, jockeys and owners, as we well as 1000s of Irish fans, make the trip to Cheltenham; and they don’t leave empty-handed. In fact, there is an unofficial contest among the Irish and British trainers, with the former having the upper-hand in recent years. Racing can be rowdy, sometimes too much so, but the rivalry between Britain and Ireland leads to an electric atmosphere.
We say that national hunt racing doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of the British Isles, but that doesn’t mean the discipline can’t produce bona fide legends. The likes of Desert Orchid, Arkle and modern greats like Kauto Star and Sprinter Sacré are recognised as global stars within the racing industry, and their reputations were forged in the cauldron of Cheltenham. The Festival has been held across three different centuries, and if anything, it is still growing in importance. An underrated gem on the world’s sporting calendar and worth checking out if you enjoy competitive horse racing.