horse-racing

The BetHut Guide to Cheltenham Festival

March 12, 2018

- Grant Whittington

Make no mistake; the Cheltenham Festival remains one of the most iconic and popular meetings in the National Hunt racing calendar. Arguably second only to the Grand National, this event saw an estimated 230,000 race-goers attend last year and more than £250 million wagered across a total of four days.

This year’s installation has the potential to break even more records, with the festival scheduled to take place across four days between Tuesday, 13th March and Friday, 16th March. The fourth and final day is known across the globe as Gold Cup day, of course, and it provides a fitting ending to an epic spectacle.

 In this post, we’ll provide a brief guide to the Cheltenham Festival, paying particular attention to the history of the race and this years’ potential winners.

 The Cheltenham Festival – A Brief History

The origins of the fabled Cheltenham Festival can be traced all the way back to 1860, when the National Hunt Chase was hosted at Market Harborough. Initially known as the Grand National Hunt Meeting, it took place at various locations during its infancy and was mostly held at Warwick Racecourse during the first 40 years of the event.

Interestingly, the second installation of the meeting took pace at Cheltenham in 1861. It was not until 1904 that the event returned to the south-west, however, at which point some concerns were raised about the suitability of the track and the facilities at Cheltenham. This compelled Messrs. Pratt and Company to make major changes to the venue, as they added a fourth stand, installed drainage to prevent unsuitable racing ground and paved the enclosures.

As a result of these improvements, the National Hunt Committee decided that the 1911 meeting was to be held at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham, where it has remained unchallenged until the present day.

The event has gone from strength to strength during this time, emerging as one of the most prestigious race meetings in the UK and becoming a beacon for talented British and Irish-bred horses. In fact, many of the leading trainers hold their runners back from certain events in preparation for the Cheltenham Festival, so that their charges can perform at their best on the grandest of stages.

When it comes to the festival’s best performers, it’s interesting to note that two will be operating in tandem at this years’ meeting. We’re referring to trainer Willie Mullins and legendary jockey Ruby Walsh, who have both enjoyed incredible success at this event and are widely expected to continue this trend in partnership in 2018.

Walsh, who has only just recovered from suffering a broken leg in November and until recently faced the prospect of missing this Festival, has fortunately recovered full fitness and will be keen to add to his record number of 56 wins at Prestbury Park. This is great news for knowledgable race-goers and Cheltenham regulars, particularly as Walsh has dominated the event since 2004 and been awarded the honour of leading rider 11 times in the last 14 years.

Mullins has also been the dominant trainer in recent times, entering the most winning runners at the Festival in five of the last seven years. In fact, Mullins has trained well over 30 successful Festival runners since 2011, and with Walsh on board will fancy his chances of adding to this number significantly in 2018.

What About the 2018 Festival? Who are the Likely Winners?

 As always, this years’ festival will hit the ground running on March 13th, which is known commonly as ‘Champion Day’. The headline act here is undoubtedly the Unibet Champion Hurdle, which was famously won in stellar style last year by Nicky Henderson’s outstanding Buveur D’Air.

The seven-year old gelding will return to defend his title this time around, while a career record of 11 wins in 12 hurdle and steeplechase outings also means that he’ll start as one of the overwhelming favourites at Cheltenham.

Gordon Elliott’s Apple’s Jade will also be a key contender in this race (and potentially one of the stars of the festival), with this six-year old mare having won her last five hurdle outings and prevailed at Cheltenham last year.

Wednesday is better known as Ladies Day, while it also pays host to a myriad of races that combine speed and stamina in equal measure. Of these, the Betway Queen Mother Champions Chase is the standout race, as well as being one of the most hotly-anticipated two-milers anywhere in the world.

Nicky Henderson’s Altior is the front-runner here, having won his last 12 hurdle and steeplechasing outings. He ran away with the Arkle Trophy at the 2017 Festival, just 12 months after he claimed the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham’s esteemed Prestbury Park.

Thursday 15th is also St. Patrick’s Day, and this always draws a buoyant and enthusiastic crowd to Cheltenham. It just so happens that this year it will also play host two a couple of outstanding contests, with the Ryanair Chase arguably the most exciting.

Trainer Willie Mullins is expected to take the lead in this race, with nine of the 28-strong field coming from his stable. Among these are the exceptional Killultagh Vic, who despite falling at Leopardstown last time out was successful in his previous five steeplechase and hurdle races. He was also victorious at Cheltenham back in 2015, and looks back to his best after an extended hiatus through injury.

Friday needs little introduction, of course, with the Gold Cup representing one of the most coveted prizes in horse racing. With a winner’s cheque of £357,375 on offer, this is sure to be one of the most keenly contested races of the entire festival.

The early favourite here is Nicky Henderson’s Might Bite, who is being touted at initial odds of around 3/1 for one of racings’ most coveted prizes. The nine-year old gelding has won his last five steeplechase races, including last years’ RSA Novices Chase at Cheltenham (where he emerged victorious following a thrilling finish).

He will face stiff competition in the form of Native River, of course, and defending champion Sizing John. The latter has been initially priced at 6/1, and despite a disappointing, seventh-place finish at Leopardstown in December he has won five of his last six steeplechase outings.

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