|Thursday 2nd February 2017|
Cheltenham Festival Preview
It's just under six weeks now until National Hunt's pay per event, the Cheltenham Festival. Over 200,000 punters will visit Prestbury Park over four fantastic days in March, taking in 28 races. Bookmakers thrive from the event, with some of the best bets on offer all year. Each of the four days has its own Championship race, they include; The Champion Hurdle, The Champion Chase, The Stayer's Hurdle and The Gold Cup which is on the final day of Festival.
Although the Grand National is the biggest public race in the National Hunt calendar the Cheltenham Festival is where we see the sports stars battle to become the best in class. Over £150 million pounds is bet on the Festival each year, with the punters and bookmakers going head to head all week.
The first race of the Tuesday is the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the Festival curtain raiser. The start is met by the traditional 'Cheltenham Roar' from the spectators as the runners set off. Tuesday's championship race is the Champion Hurdle, raced over 2 miles. This is the ultimate speed test for the participants, with accurate hurdling vital also. It has been won by some special horses like dual winner Night Nurse, who was involved in some great battles with two other dual winners Monksfield and Sea Pigeon in the late 70's
In the past 20 years the Irish have dominated the race with the likes of Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Hurricane Fly all multiple winners of the contest. On the Wednesday the Champion Chase takes centre stage and for most that is the week's most enthralling contest, again over 2 miles but jumping fences this time.
There is no hiding place in The Champion Chase and any flaws in your jumping will soon be punished. Last year it was won by Sprinter Sacre who looked as if he was going to be an all-time great before heart problems seemed to curtail his career early. Last season though he bounced back to form going unbeaten in four races including when regaining his Champion Chase crown with and emotional victory.
On the third day the Stayer's Hurdle is the main contest, although it does have competition from the '5th' Championship race the Ryanair Chase, run over 2m5f. The Ryanair is for horses that aren't quick enough for the Champion Chase but don't have the stamina for Friday's Gold Cup. Going back to the Stayer's Hurdle we see what is probably the the least prestigious of the four big races.
This is generally because most horses go 'Chasing' at some point in their career with the aim of winning a Gold Cup therefore leaving a lack of depth in the staying hurdle division. An example of this is last year's runaway winner Thistlecrack who is now favourite for the Gold Cup after being sent Chasing. That said there have been some very good winners of the race over the years.
Most recently we had triple winner Inglis Drever who was then usurped by Big Buck's who won the contest four times for trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Ruby Walsh. This year the market is headed by last year's Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry, who is trained by the up and coming Harry Fry. He is unbeaten for the trainer after starting life in his yard as a lowly 123 rated handicapper.
If he can go on to win the Stayer's Hurdle it will be a rag's to riches fairy tale story for a horse who had only won 1 race in 13 attempts prior to joining Fry's yard, where he now has 8 wins from 8 races. The week culminates with the Festival showpiece on Friday, The Cheltenham Gold Cup.
This is the ultimate test for a racehorse who needs to call on all their attributes to complete the extended 3m2f trip. Some of the icons in the National Hunt hall of fame have won this unique test including 5 time winner Golden Miller who dominated between the wars in the 1930's. Arguably the greatest of all time, Arkle, won the race 3 times in the 60's beating the excellent 1963 winner Mill House in '64 and '65.
More recently in the early thousands, Henrietta Knight's Best Mate dominated, winning the Gold Cup 3 years on the bounce. Another who lay's claim to the greatest horse of our times is 2007 and 2009 Gold Cup winner Kauto Star. When he regained his title in 2009 he became the only horse in the races history to do so. This year the mighty Thistlecrack will try to edge his name up the list of great's by winning the Gold Cup as novice, like Coneygree in 2015.
With over 100 years of history many a good horse has graced the turf of Prestbury Park and there is no reason why the class of 2017 will not follow suit over those magical four days.