The Cheltenham Festival is only a month away, a sure sign that spring must be in the air and we can soon put another bitter winter behind us. The four-day festival is a unique experience, and one at which first timers are guaranteed a good time, as well as the more experienced race goers.
Whether this year will be your first Cheltenham or, like Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, you’re part of the Cheltenham Festival furniture, you’ll need to plan your time carefully as the four days seem to go by in the blink of an eye. The following day-by-day guide will help you do just that – but should be particularly helpful for the festival newbies. As well as explaining what happens when, we’ll take a look at the ante-post bets where available.
If you’re tempted to make an early wager, find out which bookies offer non runner no bet, just to be on the safe side. This is a type of bet that is particularly useful when you are placing a wager well in advance of a particular race. If the horse you are backing is withdrawn, the bet is void and you get your money back.
10 March – Champions Day
The gates will open at 10:30 in the morning ready for the first race, which gets underway at 13:30 and will be accompanied by the traditional Cheltenham Roar. Things typically get off to a chaotic start with 100 horses taking to the field in the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Last year, Willie Mullins got off to the perfect start when Klassical Dream finished ahead of the pack.
The feature race on Champions Day, however, is the Champion Hurdle. Past winners include Brave Inca, Dawn Run and See You Then, who won it three times. The 2019 race was won by 18/1 outsider Espoir D’Allen, who sadly passed away last year.
The early favourite for this year’s race is Benie Des Dieux. The Willie Mullins-trained nine year old is currently on a three race winning streak, having most recently won the John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle at Gowan Park on 23 January.
11 March – Ladies Day
Hold on to your hats on day two of the festival, this is the day when both the ladies and the gentlemen get to show off their sartorial elegance. Away from the high fashion and boutique shopping, there is serious business to be taken care of on the old course. The showpiece event is the Queen Mother Champion Chase, arguably the most exhilarating race of the entire festival.
A look at the past winners reads like a who’s who of horse racing, including horses like Viking Flagship and Finian’s Rainbow. But the big question on everyone’s lips is whether the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior will become only the second horse in the event’s 60 year history to win three years in succession. The bookmakers think it’s a distinct possibility, and the 10 year old is currently at 3/1 odds to match the record set by Robert Earnsworth on Badsworth Boy in the mid 1980s.
Another race that will get plenty of attention this year is the Cross Country Chase. For the past two years it has been won by Tiger Roll, who has, on each occasion, gone on to win the Grand National. The bookmakers have eyes for nobody else and he is currently at 13/8 to make it three and three. If he does, the speculation that he could go on to do something very special at Aintree will undoubtedly reach fever pitch.
12 March – St Patrick’s Day
Yes, it’s actually five days early, but the third day of the Cheltenham Festival is when Prestbury Park takes on a distinct shade of green. There’s always a strong showing from the Irish horses, jockeys and trainers at Cheltenham, so grab yourself a Guinness and join in the craic.
Out on the New Course, there are three Group One races in which to immerse yourself. The first race of the day is the Novice’s Chase, in which the Mullins-trained Faugheen is expected to lead the way. It’s an interesting call by the veteran trainer, as this is the horse that last year was runaway favourite for the Stayers Hurdle. As it was, the Day Three showpiece race was won by Paisley Park, and the eight year old is odds-on to repeat the feat in 2020 after a strong showing on trials day.
Looking for a tempting outside shot? Bookmaker odds of 25/1 suggest that for Gordon Elliot’s Apples Jade, her best days might be behind her. Yet she will be a firm favourite with the Cheltenham faithful, and that crowd support can sometimes have a magical effect. The romantic in many punters will certainly feel it is worth an each-way bet.
13 March – Gold Cup Day
And so, before you know it, we will arrive at the grand conclusion of a grand week of racing. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the one that everyone wants to win, and last year, we finally saw Willie Mullins break his duck in the race after more years than he would care to admit.
Al Boum Photo took the bookmakers a little by surprise in 2019, but this year, the eight year old is a warm favourite among bookmakers. If he succeeds in winning again, he’ll be the first to win back to back Gold Cups since the legendary Best Mate made the race his own for three years running between 2002 and 2004.
Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer ever, and will be keen to keep things that way after Mullins’ fabulous streak of wins over the past year or so. Of course, the Gold Cup is the biggest prize of all, so keep a close eye on Henderson’s Santini. The eight year old looked highly impressive on trials day, and is at only marginally longer odds than Al Boum Photo with most of the bookmakers.
Of course, there is still plenty of time between now and the Festival. Keep a close eye on the racing press, as those odds are certain to shift in the days and weeks ahead. One thing is for sure. The horses and riders might come and go, but Messrs Mullins and Henderson are certain to be duking it out for supremacy in the training stakes!