With only weeks left until the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, the excitement is building with every day that passes. In just over 40 days Festival goers will join together to be part of the historic ‘roar’ that greets the Festival curtain raiser, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. That kicks off a 28 race bonanza over 4 days where around 200,000 pints of Guinness will be knocked back by punters alike, 10,000 of which will come from the emerald isle itself.
Every passing year the Cheltenham Festival seems to grow bigger and bigger, often given the tag line ‘The Greatest Show On Turf’. With over £100 million spent on bets at last year’s festival, bookmakers are tripping over one another to offer the best free bets for the week. The best horses from across the UK & Ireland come together over four days to showcase sublime talent in equine form. There will brilliance, drama, hard luck stories and so much more on show under the beautiful back drop of the famous Cleeve Hill.
The ‘Festival’ gives the opportunity for horses from all background to write their name into Cheltenham folklore. You see legends born, kings crowned and at times the most unlikely winners gate-crashing the four day party. From the myth like Arkle, who carried all before him over 50 years ago, to the not so long ago ‘King’ Kauto Star who became the first horse ever to regain the Festival showpiece, The Gold Cup.
Each of the 4 days has its own centre piece race, which are; The Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, The Stayer’s Hurdle and The Cheltenham Gold Cup. Each of these races offer their own unique test for the participants, whether its speed or stamina there is no hiding place once out on the turf. Run alongside these contests are Graded Novice events and Handicaps.
The Novice events are for horses who have only taken part in said discipline, hurdling or chasing, that current season. Although if a horse doesn’t win a race that season it will still be eligible for Novice races the following season. These races are a chance to see the future stars of the racing world and for the connections to dream that they have the next star of the National Hunt world.
The Handicap races give a chance to some of the lesser lights of the game to get a shot of glory. There are 10 Handicaps over the 4 days and every single one is as competitive as the next one. If you find the winner of more than one or two of these races you will have done well as punter. The meeting also has a handful of individual contests like the Champion Bumper which is for lightly raced sorts who haven’t been asked to jump a hurdle or fence so far in their career. If we throw in the ‘Foxhunters’ and the very unique Cross Country Chase the Cheltenham Festival just about caters for every National Hunt need.
Getting these fragile beasts to Festival in rude health takes some doing and that is where the trainers come in. After taking in a multitude of races over the season the trainer has the ultimate task of getting his or her charge to the sports showpiece event in peak condition. The trainer who has dominated over recent years is Irish trainer Willie Mullins. The master of Closutton has been the festivals top trainer in 5 of the last 6 years and boasts a ever growing total of 48 winners. That is just 5 behind all-time leading festival trainer Nicky Henderson (53 winners), who looks a sitting duck to the formidable Mullins.
The final piece to the jigsaw is having the right person aboard your horse. The skill and bravery required from a jockey is up there with any sportsperson out there. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is as sweet as any in the National Hunt calendar but reaching it is fraught with danger. With such competitive racing, anything can happen once those tapes go up.
In recent years the person you would want on your side is all time leading festival jockey Ruby Walsh, who boasts an impressive 52 victories in all. He has been provided with some excellent ammunition over the years, first by Paul Nicholls and now by Willie Mullins in the main. His list of Cheltenham victories reads like a who’s who of Festival folklore, winning on the likes of Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, Azertyuiop, Faugheen, Annie Power and the ill-fated Vautour who sadly passed at the end of 2016.
Despite all of that talent he still needs to get the job done and there is no cooler head or better judge of pace than Ruby Walsh. To put his festival record in perspective he has over twice as many winners as retired 20 time Champion jockey Sir Anthony ‘AP’ McCoy who managed a very respectable 25 festival winners over his 23 year career. For most jockeys getting just one winner on the board would more than enough.
So what to expect from the class of 2017? As per usual there will be thrills, spills and so much more during the 4 day Festival feast. We could see the next racing ‘superstar’ in the shape of last year’s Stayers Hurdle winner Thistlecrack. He will be looking to build on his brilliant Boxing Day King George demolition when he lines up a hot favourite for the Festival showpiece, The Gold Cup. We also get Altior vs Min part two in Arkle Chase, after they filled the first two places in last year’s Supreme Novices Hurdle.
Finally, as we get closer and closer to the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’ we will be able to hear that soft sound of trainers wrapping their beloved stars in cotton wool, hoping to get them there in one piece. Anything can happen across those magical four days, the good, the bad and even the ugly at times. The punters will be on that roller-coaster ride that just keeps bringing them back for regardless how their week goes.
The clock is ticking and when the hands reach 1.30pm on the 14th March the alarm will ringing loud and clear in the form of a historic roar, signalling the start of something special once more. Let the countdown begin….