The two biggest races in the National Hunt calendar take place just a month or so apart from each other, with the Cheltenham Festival coming in March every year before the Grand National takes place the month after. It is a genuinely thrilling time of year for racing fans, who flock to Gloucestershire and Merseyside in their tens of thousands to watch the racing unfold over the seven days of racing split between Cheltenham and Aintree racecourses.
It really begs the question about which of the two meetings is the bigger, to say nothing of what exactly is meant by ‘bigger’. Is that determined by the number of people that watch, for example, or simply how much money is bet on the most prestigious races? Does it come down to which of the two events the jockeys and trainer respect the most, or is it about how the audience reacts to the two meetings that matters the most? The honest answer is that you’ll almost certainly get a different answer depending on who it is that you decide to speak to.
One Race Against Dozens Of Races
Let’s start with the most obvious thing: the Cheltenham Festival involves 28 races being run across four days at Prestbury Park, whereas the Grand National is just one race. What a lot of people that aren’t all that interested in horse racing as a sport don’t realise is that the Grand National comes at the end of a three-day mini-Festival on Merseyside, but they don’t realise because the other two days just don’t enter the public consciousness in the same way that the National itself does. Yes, the Daily Mail and other tabloids will rock up on Ladies’ Day to sneer at the racegoers out to have a good time, but they don’t necessarily associate that with the racing.
The Cheltenham Festival sees four days of top-class racing take place, culminating in the Gold Cup but with plenty of other excellent races before then to keep the punters interested. In terms of sheer entertainment value alone you’d have to say that the Festival takes the biscuit. The Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Coral Cup and Stayers’ Hurdle would all sit near the top of any list looking at the best jump races to take place during the year, so that alone means that it asks serious questions of the Grand National in the chase to find out which meeting is bigger.
Racing Enthusiasts Probably Prefer Cheltenham
There are eleven Grade 1 races run during the Grand National festival of racing, which is impressive considering that it is run over one day less than the Cheltenham Festival. Yet when it comes to the main event itself, the Grand National is ‘only’ a Grade 3 race that means true racing enthusiasts don’t have as much respect for it as races higher up the pecking order.
When it comes to the Cheltenham Festival, on the other hand, you get to watch four days of racing that give racegoers a chance to watch top-class race after top-class race. There are fourteen Grade 1 races run during the meeting, as well as two Grade 2 offerings and six Grade 3 races, making it a thrilling week of racing. Does the Grading of the main races make a big difference in terms of how ‘big’ the race should be considered to be? The honest answer is that it shouldn’t, and yet racing snobs do think about such things.
The Punters Go Big For The Grand National
As much as the racing snobs might look down on the Grand National when compared to the Gold Cup, there’s no question that punters absolutely adore the Aintree race. It is a race that was thrust into the public consciousness thanks to the exploits of Red Rum, who many consider to be the horse that saved the Grand National. In the 1970s the race was far from popular, with audience attendance dwindling and disputes over the ownership of the racecourse causing many fear for its future. Then Red Rum came along, having a diseased foot until trainer Ginger McCain rode him in the sea water at Southport Beach to get him ready to race.
McCain had bought Red Rum to take on the challenge offered to him by Noel Le Mare to train him a Grand National winner, yet even he must have been amazed at the horse that Red Rum turned out to be. He won the race for the first time in 1973 despite being behind Crisp for most of the race, only taking over from him as the finish line loomed. He defended his title in 1974 and might have won in the next two years, when he came second, if it hadn’t been for a generous handicapper giving the winners in those years too much weight on him. His hat-trick win in 1977 made him one of the race’s greatest ever winners.
His wins saw the public’s interest in the race reignited and it has remained popular ever since. Part of the reason for the popularity of the Grand National is the fact that it always feels as though it could be any horse’s race. Never was that more keenly realised than in 1967 when a pile-up at the 23rd fence allowed 100/1 outsider Foinavon to bypass the field, having been so far behind that he didn’t get caught up in the melee. He romped home as the longest-odds winner that the race had seen for more than four decades. It’s part of what makes many people consider the Grand National to be the greatest horse race in the world.
It’s also part of the reason that the National is one of the most bet on events in the country and the most wagered on horse race. Punters believe that the huge field gives them a chance to take on the bookies and bet on a rank outsider, with many people who don’t normally bet on races being willing to have a bet on the National. Yet when you look at the top 40 most bet on races you’ll see the likes of the Gold Cup, Triumph Hurdle and Champion Chase on the list. Indeed, Ladbrokes and Coral’s list of the most bet on races for 2018 saw 25 of the 40 events coming during the Cheltenham Festival.
Jockeys Prefer Cheltenham
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in 2010, Tony McCoy said that jockeys would prefer to win the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival rather than the Grand National. He confirmed what many suspect, which is that the public prefer the National because of the excitement of the race but that the jockeys themselves view the Gold Cup as the ‘pinnacle’ of the sport.
In McCoy’s defence, he did point out that he might be biased because he’d never won the National but had enjoyed success in the Gold Cup more than once. Few other jockeys have gone on the record in the same way as McCoy, but it stands to reason than the race that is seen more as a test of a jockey’s ability would be one that they’d prefer to win over one that is something of a coin toss. That being said, the challenge of winning the National gives it an extra edge.
Which Is ‘Bigger’?
The question of which one is the bigger event, then, remains somewhat unanswered. On the one hand there’s little question that the public’s adoration for the Grand National makes it the most thrilling and bet on race in the National Hunt calendar, yet on the other there are so many top-class races to be run during the Cheltenham Festival that it will always sit higher on the list for most horse racing aficionados.
Which side do you come down on?