The Cheltenham Festival kicks off this coming week, beginning on Tuesday, March 12. It’s a 4-day celebration of the very best of the season, and the horses arrive carrying the hopes and dreams of owners, trainers, jockeys and passionate fans.
This handbook of some of the most hotly-contested races is aimed primarily at those who are less familiar with this oldest of thoroughbred racing venues.
At the conclusion is the full 4-day race schedule, complete with race cards and profiles of individual horses. As for non-UK enthusiasts’ chances of watching Cheltenham live we can only suggest that you run a search on your computer to locate possible free live streaming. Failing that, both the http://www.racingpost.com (click on the television tab or go to its Cheltenham site) or http://www.atthraces.com will post replays probably less than 24 hours after the most popular races are run.
As with our previous article, THE VAULT again thanks the generosity of Toby Connors in allowing us to use more of his fabulous photos. (Please note that they are all copyright-protected).
In conclusion, THE VAULT expresses its hope that every one of the courageous horses and jockeys competing at this year’s Festival come home safe and sound.
FESTIVAL RACES: A PRIMER
As was noted in our previous post about the champion hurdler, Sprinter Sacre, the official title of the Cheltenham Festival is the National Hunt Meeting. Originating in 1860, the Festival is held in March, close to the time of the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree. The Cheltenham Festival is the most prestigious National Hunt meet of the year. It is here that all but the Grand National horses come out — and so many of them are absolute stars, as is the case this year.
The zenith of the Festival is the Grade 1 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase. Run at a distance of 3m 2f 110y on the closing day, March 15, it can be compared to the most elite races for thoroughbreds run on the flat. Except that the horses themselves can be thoroughbreds or thoroughbred-derived breeds, like the Selle Francais. (In National Hunt racing, only the Grand National Steeplechase is reserved strictly for thoroughbreds.) Famous jumpers to have won the Gold Cup include the greatest of them all, Golden Miller. Born in 1927, the bay gelding made 55 starts and won 29 times. He took the Gold Cup on 5 consecutive occasions, between 1932-1936. And, as if that weren’t enough, in 1934 he won the British Grand National and the Gold Cup — the only horse to have ever accomplished this feat in a single season. Owned latterly by the Honorable Dorothy Paget, Golden Miller died in 1957, leaving a National Hunt record still unequalled today.
Other great horses have won over a period of 2-3 consecutive years: the Vincent O’Brien-trained Cottage Rake (3 times, from 1948-1950), the beloved Arkle (3 times, from 1964-1966), Raymond R. Guest’s L’Escargot (twice, in 1970 and again in 1971) and most recently the champion, Best Mate (3 times, from 2002-2004). Other noteworthy winners, each of whom was well-loved by his racing public, include Desert Orchid, Kauto Star (twice in 3 years) and his stablemate, Denman, as well as The Dikler, Dawn Run, Imperial Call and Master Oats. The 2011 winner, Paul Nicholls’ Long Run, will compete again in this year’s Gold Cup.
Golden Miller’s 1935 Gold Cup victory:
The fabulous Kauto Star leads his buddy, Denman, and the champion Neptune Collanges (grey) home in the 2007 Gold Cup:
The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy (G1): Simonsig (10) and Overturn (9) expected to do battle.
According to jockey Barry Geraghty, his boss’ Simonsig is the only jumper he knows who might overhaul another champion of the Henderson stable: Sprinter Sacre. No worries this season, though, as Simonsig hasn’t been put to the test. The favourite in the Arkle, the gorgeous grey is expected to be challenged by Donald McCain’s talented Overturn.
The Stan James Champion Challenge Hurdle Trophy (G1) : Hurricane Fly (7), Zarkandar (10), Rock On Ruby (9), Grandouet (6) and Binocular (2)
This race promises to be a thriller, with the current favourite, Hurricane Fly, taking on a number of champion horses. Unless he’s hugely unlucky, there’s no reason that Hurricane Fly shouldn’t dominate again, even though the punters are very keen on the second choice favourite, Zarkandar.
The OLGB Mares’ Hurdle (G2): Featuring the incomparable Quevega (5)
Her sire, Robin Des Champs (FR) was himself a very fine jumper, so you could say it’s in her blood. But even then. Quevega, a 9 year-old, has won her last 6 starts and has a lifetime record of 20-13-0-4. Trained by the noted W P Mullins and ridden to each of those victories by the accomplished Ruby Walsh, the last time out Quevega vanquished Voler La Vedette, who isn’t back in this particular race to take her on again. If she wins the OLGB Mares’ Hurdle, it will be for the 5th consecutive year, equalling the record of Golden Miller in the Gold Cup.
How fabulous is this great mare? Just take a look:
NOTE: As we go to press, Quevega has also been entered in the Ladbroke’s World Champion Hurdle, but trainer WP “Willie” Mullins has indicated he favours this race for his champion mare.
The Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase (G1): Sprinter Sacre (8), Sizing Europe (6), Finian’s Rainbow (2), Sanctuaire (5)
As was suggested in our last post here on THE VAULT, the Queen Mum is Sprinter Sacre’s to lose. Even though his enthusiastic running style leaves his trainer’s insides in ruins, Nicky Henderson is not willing to tinker with it on March 13th.
The horses Henderson’s superstar is poised to take on aren’t chopped liver either. The fabulous Sizing Europe has earned the right to be the bettors’ second choice: he’s only lost once since December 2011 and has earned over 800,000 BPS. But his single defeat did come at the hands of Finian’s Rainbow, another Henderson trainee who ranks as third pick. Mail de Bievre, the fourth choice of the betting public, was 5th and 4th in his last two races; his last win was in 2010.
The Wetherby’s Champion Bumper (G1)
What’s most exciting about this race has little to do with winners or losers. Trainer Aidan O’Brien has returned to Cheltenham for the first time since his mighty Istabraq (Sadler’s Wells ex. Betty’s Secret by Secretariat) was pulled up in 2002 in the Champion’s Hurdle and subsequently retired. This time, the horse in question is a son of Arc winner Dylan Thomas, Shield by name. The colt is a youngster by National Hunt standards at the age of 4 and has only 2 starts under his belt, even though he won one of them. Owned by O’Brien’s wife, Anne Marie, herself a canny breeder who runs her own farm and stable, Shield will be ridden by none other than Joseph O’Brien. It should be a real family affair and Aidan, who made his reputation as a Jumps trainer before going to Coolmore seems delighted to rekindle the excitement of Festival days.
The Ryanair Chase (G1): Cue Card (3), First Lieutenant (5), Riverside Theatre (9), Alberta’s Run(1)
(NOTE: As we go to press, both Sizing Europe and Finian’s Rainbow are also listed for this event, but that may change by March 12)
Viewers are in for a treat on the second to last day of the Festival, as the scintillating Cue Card struts his stuff in the Ryanair Chase. Below, Cue Card is shown here winning the Sportingbet Haldon Gold Cup Chase in 2012 by an absolutely remarkable distance. He has been every bit as solid in 2013:
BETFRED CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP CHASE: Bob’s Worth, Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant and Long Run
As was noted above, the Gold Cup is the crowning glory of the Cheltenham Festival, although it is not the last race on the card that day. And it is, as the British would say, a “very testing” race of over 3 miles. A “chase” is short for “steeplechase” and that means the highest and most complex array of jumps. Nicky Henderson’s Bob’s Worth is the current favourite given his power, stride and care over jumps of this magnitude. Nicky Henderson is also running the great Long Run — meaning that he’s got 2 of the strongest contenders. Here’s a look at the key horses in this, the most prestigious and storied race of the Cheltenham Festival:
SCHEDULE OF RACES + RACE CARDS
Just CLICK on any of the list of races below to go to the race card. You can also click on a horse’s name to go to an individual race record. (Courtesy of the UK’s RACING POST)
NOTE: All entries listed were accurate as of March 8, 2013.