The 2019 Cheltenham Festival is upon us: the week where everything stops for the lover of national hunt racing. It is the mecca, the World Cup of jump racing, where the feeling of the challenge that lays between the notorious English vs Irish trainers and jockeys adds the extra spice to the occasion. At the end of a long hard season, the festival culminates in the second week in March on an annual basis.
The historic challenge comes to the fore of attention in the sport over the years. The anticipation of lifting the Champion Hurdle, the Stayers Hurdle, the Champion Chase, or the lucrative Gold Cup itself: the Blue Riband trophy. The four-day meeting is enough for every day working class man and woman to take a week off work and make their way to the Gloucestershire racecourse situated in the glorious Cotswolds.
That deceleration of joy when over 60’000 racegoers cheer the start of the first race, year in year out, is as famous as the hymn “abide with me” played before an FA Cup Final at Wembley. It is something that simply gets the taste buds of millions of viewers around the whole of the UK and Ireland buzzing with the temptation of landing that bet at the glorious festival itself.
With a crowd of more than 260,000 people, traditionally the sales of Guinness are famous at the festival with a predicted quarter of million pints will be drunk alongside 120,000 bottles of wine and 20,000 bottles of champagne.
Celebrations are always something to behold and of course with respect, when the travelling Irish grab a winner, which is quite often, then the old term “tare the roof of the building” springs to mind. There is nothing within the romance of any other horse race meeting that matches the Cheltenham winners circle when the Irish land a winner, especially if it is of one of the big three races.
The Champion Hurdle, run over two miles is the test of the best hurdlers in the UK and Ireland. It has been a race steeped in the glory of some of the greatest horses we have ever witnessed at this distance and discipline. The names of horses like Istabraq, Sea Pigeon, Bula and many many others are at the end of the tongue of the race historians.
However, this year sees the famous colours of the effervescent owner and longtime Cheltenham stalwart Mr JP McManus and Nicky Henderson, trained winner of the past two Champion Hurdles, Bouvier D’air, looking like he will go off favourite again. Although, this is under stiff opposition from the Irish trainer-genius Willie Mullins Ggigginstown’s owned mare, Apples Jade, who looks like she will be in strong competition for the trophy.
In the two-mile champion chase, the race for the fastest speed chaser of the year, there seems to be no horse that has shown that it is capable of getting within ten lengths of the hot favourite, and Nicky Henderson trained holder of the title Altior. Without a doubt one of the most exceptional horses we have witnessed over the course of many many years, and most certainly looks like as if only a failure to get around being the lone issue to stop him retaining his crown.
The Gold Cup event of the meeting is the pinnacle of the national hunt season. It is the race where all plans go out the window. Nothing can be predicted as the pace is not up for grabs and in many ways, strange things do happen.
In 1990, the race was won by a certain Nortons Coin who went off as a rank outsider at 100/1. On that day there was not a better winner of the race, as he clearly showed that when coming to the last with the Jenny Pitman trained Toby Tobias and the flying grey, the great Desert Orchid, that when they reached the winning line Nortons Coin, complete outsider, was the best horse on the day.
The race is not always won by the best horse of that year, but more by the best on the day. Over the years there have been winners who have been the best horse all year round including the likes of recent winners such as Kauto Star and Denman. We must never ever forget the great horses who have made the festival and The Gold Cup, the race which makes us all tick.
History remembers the likes of Desert Orchid, the famous grey in 1989, and the only horse to this day to win both the Champion Hurdle and The Gold Cup and in the sixties, the emergence of the greatest steeplechaser of them all, the great Arkle.
This stirs a romance, that many lovers of the game make sure when at home watching, that all children are cleared out of the living room, that local bars are bunged with punters in anticipation of backing their knowledge against the bookie, and that for those four days in the second week in March, everything else goes right out the window.
This year will be no different and with the races mentioned being the main races for title holders I have given these tips for all you punters out there.
My tips for the festival are as follows:
Champion Hurdle: Apples Jade 2/1
Champion Chase: Altior More 5lgs 1/1
Gold Cup: Native River 6/1