National Hunt racing has a seasonal pattern which is very different to flat racing. On the flat there is a steady stream of top targets throughout the campaign, but the entire National Hunt season revolves around the Cheltenham Festival in March.
The Festival has been fixed at the current venue of Prestbury Park since 1911, but the oldest race at the current festival is the National Hunt Chase (for amateur riders over a distance of four miles), which dates back to 1860.
The blue riband event of the week is the Gold Cup, the championship race for staying chasers. Originally conceived as a trial for the Grand National (run a few weeks later), the race has evolved through the years to become the most coveted prize in the National Hunt calendar. The roll of honour includes some of the greatest staying chasers of all time, including Arkle and Kauto Star.
Hundreds of thousands of racing fans flock to Cheltenham for the week, and hundreds of millions of pounds are bet during four days of frenzied action.
As the runners circle at the start for the first race on the Tuesday (the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle), the crowd noise swells, culminating in the now famous ‘Cheltenham Roar’ as the tapes go up and the runners charge down to the first flight of hurdles.
A huge factor in the growth of the Cheltenham Festival in recent years has been the influence of Irish-trained horses at the meeting.
Historically, it proved very hard for the Irish to win races at the event, but the recent dominance of Willie Mullins (amongst others), has seen the popularity of the festival increase massively in Ireland, and now thousands of Irish racegoers make the pilgrimage every year. The success of the Irish has increased to the point where a recent introduction has been the Betbright Cup, which is awarded to either ‘Team GB’ or ‘Team Ireland’ and is based on the number of winners trained over the week.
The actual make-up of the festival races has changed down through the years, but the most recent edition had 28 races run over four days (Tuesday to Friday), with the main ‘championship’ races each day being the Champion Hurdle (2 miles), the Champion Chase (2 miles), the World Hurdle (3 miles) and the Gold Cup (3 miles 2 furlongs).
Because the National Hunt season revolves around one week in March, the majority of the top horses work their campaigns backwards from that date. This usually involves one or two runs before Christmas, followed by a reasonably big target over the festive period (usually either Kempton or Leopardstown). From there, horses are often given a break, with perhaps just on prep run before March. This dearth of top-class action during January and February serves only to heighten the expectation in the build up to the week.
Ruby Walsh has become the face of the Cheltenham Festival in recent times, having been the leading jockey at the festival in 10 of the last 13 seasons. His associations with leading trainers Paul Nicholls and, latterly, Willie Mullins mean that he has access to horses holding top chances throughout the week. Punters clamour to back anything Ruby rides, and the atmosphere at the racecourse when he is successful is something to behold.