In the third week in March, since 1860, in the open lands of Prestbury Park and right in the heart of the Cotswolds Valley in Gloucestershire, national hunt racing has held its championship meeting for the season. Races are run to determine who is the equine King/Queen of each distance and discipline for the season.
Over the years, the festival has grown in stature to become one of the most anticipated events in world sport. With normality, there would have been a predicted sale of some 2.5 million pints of Guinness – not to mention the sales of the many other items that are up for grabs over the four days, where literally everything outwith the horse racing goes out the window.
The festival was originally an English affair. However, since the days when the Irish began sending over challengers and champions by the box load, the challenge between the Irish and the English is now something that warms the cockles of millions upon millions of national hunt fans annually. This all culminates on the last day with the Gold Cup being on offer.
The history of the Gold Cup is tarred with Irishness. Since the days of Vincent O’Brien and Arkle himself, the race has become a moment in time that stops the hearts of the loyal followers who will be following this year like any other – even with a difference due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The only difference may be the reality of the racegoers not being there creating a different atmosphere to the usually filled stands. I total of 250,000 ticket holders have been represented over the four days in the past.
Over the years, the meeting has thrown up some of the finest national hunt horses the world has ever seen. There have also been many shocks with horses who looked like “Good Things” simply not running true to their form on a course which offers the ultimate test to the thoroughbred.
The undulating rise in ground, the strength of the fences, the hill at the end of each race and, of course, the pressure from the world’s media are just a number of reasons as to why it takes special horses to win at the festival.
Memories can be lost and found at Cheltenham as it is the mecca for horse racing. You can have a cracking horse, but until it wins at the festival it will forever be known as just that – not a great horse. To be a great horse, to be remembered, you have to win at the festival.
Trainers work their horses from the previous fall of Autumn right through the winter and until spring in the hope that they can build the required momentum. This may just provide them with a runner in with that golden chance of lifting one of the many races run.
However, to do so you also need to have a horse who is willing to be able to give you the same amount of dedication, and that is not easy.
With everything to look forward too come the 16th of March, let’s hope that this year’s festival lives up to the already exhilarating standards of the past. Dreams have come true, history has been made, but most importantly, a sport has excelled in running one of the best sporting events on the world calendar for everyone to observe, watch and love. This is the sport of kings.