Cheltenham Festival Day One: Champion Day

tuesdayThere’s no doubt that the reason that the Cheltenham Festival has gained such popularity over the years is in no small part thanks to the prestige of the Gold Cup, the race for which is always run on the final day of the Festival. As we’ve noted elsewhere on this site, however, the Gold Cup isn’t the only race worthy of your attention that takes place over the four days of Cheltenham.

This page will tell you all about Day One of the Festival, usually referred to as 'Champions Day'. Though the day is built around the Champion Hurdle (hence Champion Day), there are many more races besides that you’ll want to know about in order to structure your day and plan your betting. It’s also worth noting how the day itself tends to pan out so you know what to wear and what to expect should you turn up at the gates of Cheltenham Racecourse and hope to spend the day cheering on your favourite horses.

Champion Day Race Card

Timings can change, but generally speaking the Cheltenham Festival tends to stick to its routine every year. Here’s an outline of how the day should go, complete with details about last year’s winners.

Race One - Supreme Novices’ Hurdle - 1.30pm

race1That famous Cheltenham Roar we mentioned before is how you know that the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is well under way. This Grade 1 race is run on the Old Course and lasts for two miles and eighty-seven yards. It features eight hurdles and, as the name suggests, is for novice hurdlers.

The race is for horses aged four or over and they should have a weight of ten stone, thirteen pounds. Horses of five or older see that shift to eleven stone, seven pounds, whilst both fillies and mares have a seven pound allowance. The leading jockey in this race is Ruby Walsh with five wins and the leading trainer is Willie Mullins, also with five wins.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Labaik / Jockey - Jack Kennedy / Trainer - Gordon Elliott
  • Overall Prize Money - £125,000 / For The Winner - £71,187

Race Two - Arkle Challenge Trophy - 2.10pm

race2Named after one of the most famous horses in the history of the Festival, this Grade 1 race also takes place on the Old Course. In fact, all of the first day’s races are run on the Old Course and they’re all run left-handed, so you can just assume both of those things for the rest of this page. Open to novice chasers aged five years and up, the weight allowance is eleven stone four pounds with a seven pound allowance for mares.

The race is typical run at a tremendous pace, which is not to be sniffed at considering it’s run over one mile, seven furlongs and 199 yards and features thirteen fences. Prior to 1980 it was run on Day Two of the Festival, but it was moved in that year and has remained on Day One ever since. Barry Geraghty is the leading jockey with four wins, whilst Nicky Henderson’s six victories make him the leading trainer.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Altior / Jockey - Nico de Boinville / Trainer - Nicky Henderson
  • Overall Prize Money - £175,000 / For The Winner - £99,662

Race Three - Festival Trophy Handicap Chase - 2.50pm

race3Though the Gold Cup might be the most prestigious race of the entire week and the Champion Hurdle is the race Day One is centred around, the Festival Trophy Handicap Chase might be the most competitive one run at the Festival. It is open to horses aged five and older and typically features quite a large field. The Grade 3 race takes place over a distance of three miles and one furlong, during which the horses must jump twenty fences.

Owing to both its length and the number of jumps, it can often turn into something of a war of attrition between the horses that take part in it. Oftentimes the winner will enter the Grand National as a favourite, such is the ferocity of the race. Weight-wise it is a handicap race, so the handicapper will assign different amounts in order to make it as level a playing field as possible. Records of winners only go back as far as 1946, but since then Robert Thornton has been the most successful jockey with three wins and both Fred Rimell and Fulke Walwyn have achieved four wins as trainers.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Un Temps Pour Tout / Jockey - Tom Scudamore / Trainer - David Pipe
  • Overall Prize Money - £105,000 / For The Winner - £59,797

Race Four - The Champion Hurdle - 3.30pm

race4The Champion Hurdle is absolutely the most exciting and looked-out-for race of Day One at the Cheltenham Festival. It is, of course, a Grade 1 race and is open to four year old and over with a weight of eleven stone two pounds. If the horse is over five then that shifts to eleven stone ten pounds and both fillies and mares get a seven pound allowance. Run over two miles and eight-seven yards and featuring eight hurdles, this race decides on the champion of the hurdles division for the year.

The Champion Hurdle comes after The Fighting Fifth Hurdle, which is run at Newcastle Racecourse, and The Christmas Hurdle, run at Kempton Park Racecourse, as the final leg of the Triple Crown of Hurdling. Only a horse named Kribensis has won all three, an achievement accomplished with Richard Dunwoody on his back in the 1989-1990 season. Both Tim Molony and Ruby Walsh have won this four times as jockeys, whilst Nicky Henderson is once again the leading trainer with six wins.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Buveur D'Air / Jockey - Noel Fehily / Trainer - Nicky Henderson
  • Overall Prize Money - £400,000 / For The Winner - £227,800

Race Five - Mares’ Hurdle - 4.10pm

race5The Mares’ Hurdle is one of the youngest races at the Cheltenham Festival, having only been inaugurated back in 2008. That year it was held on the final day of the meeting but it was moved to Day One in 2009 and has remained there since. Run over two miles, three furlongs and two-hundred yards, the Grade 1 race is open to four year olds and up. Weight-wise you’re looking at ten stone ten pounds for four year olds and eleven stone five pounds for horses over five.

If you’ve ever heard the expression 'a one horse race' then it could easily have come from this one: From 2009 to to 2014 it was one by just one horse named Quevega. Featuring nine hurdles, this started life as a Grade 2 race saw it move to Grade 1 in 2015. The most successful jockey in the event is Ruby Walsh, who rode Quevega all six times and then won again in 2016. Willie Mullins trained Quevega and has also trained two other winning horses, making him the most successful trainer in the race with eight victories.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Apple's Jade / Jockey - Bryan Cooper / Trainer - Gordon Elliott
  • Overall Prize Money - £110,000 / For The Winner - £61,897

Race Six - National Hunt Chase - 4.50pm

race6Open to novice chasers that are ridden by amateur jockeys, the National Hunt Chase is the penultimate race of the first day of the Festival. It’s a Grade 2 race that features twenty-four fences jumped over a gruelling four miles. As well as being a novice the horses must also be over five years of age and weight eleven stone four pounds, or eleven stone six pounds if they’re over six years of age. Having said that, there is a seven pound allowance for mares.

Though the Gold Cup is now the most important race at the Festival, the meeting would never have been the event that it is if the racecourse hadn’t persuaded the National Hunt Committee to allow the National Hunt Chase to be moved to Cheltenham permanently back in 1911. It is the longest race of the week and from 2005 to 2007 was actually run on the New Course. Interestingly, no horse has won the race twice and no jockey has won it three times or more. Ten jockeys have won it on two occasions, including Willie Mullins and JT McNamara, whilst Jonjo O’Neill is the most successful trainer with his six wins.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Tiger Roll / Jockey - Lisa O'Neill / Trainer - Gordon Elliott
  • Overall Prize Money - £105,000 / For The Winner - £59,960

Race Seven - Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase - 5.30pm

race7Run over two miles and four and a half furlongs, the Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase has sixteen fences for the novice chasers to jump. Qualification is given to horses of five years of age or older that have a handicap rating of between 0 and 140. Established back in 2005 when a fourth day was added to the Festival’s calendar, this race is the last to be run on Day One as punters collect their winnings and drain the last of their drinks.

From 2005 until 2010 it was named the Jewson Novices' Handicap Chase, owing to sponsorship, and was held on the third day of the festival. It was renamed in 2011 in honour of Cheltenham Racecourse’s centenary and has had numerous sponsorships since. Given its relative youth, it’s not a surprise that there are no standout winners of this race. Both the leading jockey, Graham Lee, and the leading trainer, Ferdy Murphy, have just two wins to their names.

2017 Winners

  • Horse - Tully East / Jockey - Denis O'Regan / Trainer - Alan Fleming
  • Overall Prize Money - £65,000 / For The Winner - £37,018

What To Expect On Champion Day

Champion Day is a popular day at the Cheltenham Festival for two main reasons: The Champion Hurdle and the famous Cheltenham Roar. The atmosphere is one of excited expectation, with punters knowing that they’re about to witness the start of a special four days on the racing calendar. It often feels as though the entire jump racing industry has been building up to Cheltenham, so everyone inside the racecourse is ready for it to be a wonderful day. The Cheltenham Roar is almost a primal scream, letting out months of tension as the first race gets underway.

It is not entirely unusual to see members of the Royal Family wandering around Cheltenham Racecourse on Day One of the Festival. In 2012 Zara Phillips, the Queen’s granddaughter, rode into the place on the back of her own horse, Toytown, carrying the Olympic Flame. Now that is unlikely to happen again any time soon, but Zara continues to give the Festival her patronage and enjoys attending on the first day in order to suss out the going and see how the crowds are looking.  She is often accompanied by her husband, the rugby player Mike Tindall.

champion day 1

The Royals aren’t the only well-known faces who frequent one of the racing calendars most exciting days. Over the years celebrities from all over the list (from A right the way down to Z) have shown up on Day One. Sometimes it’s because they’re genuine horse lovers, whilst on other occasions it’s merely because they know the newspapers and TV cameras will be there. The likes of Elizabeth Hurley, Ant & Dec, Carol Vorderman, Lilly Allen, Dermot O’Leary and those associated with football such as Harry Redknapp have all been seen wandering the racecourse from time-to-time.

There aren’t any major rules that you need to be aware of on Day One of the Festival. If you’re heading there as a guest in one of the hospitality areas then it’s always worth finding out if there’s a special dress code that your hosts would like you to adhere to, but the only thing the Racecourse specifies is that fancy dress is not permitted within the Club Enclosure on Gold Cup Day. The rest of the week you can wear pretty much whatever you want, though anyone who has ever seen anything about racing will know that men tend to wear suits and women dresses. Elaborate hats or fascinators on the ladies are positively encouraged.

Final Thoughts

festival 32

Day One of the Cheltenham Festival is full of people giddy with excitement; and why shouldn’t they be? This is, after all, the start of one of the most thrilling weeks of racing in the National Hunt calendar. Only the Grand National week at Aintree Racecourse comes close to this one for sheer kicks and entertainment when it comes to horse racing. The likes of Ascot may be more ‘proper’, but this is more fun.