The Cheltenham Festival is arguably the biggest and most prestigious meeting in jump racing. It dominates the sport in March every year, seeing the very best in horses, trainers and owners turning up to Gloucestershire with the sole aim of winning as many races as possible over the course of the week. What many people might not realise, though, is that the road to Cheltenham actually starts well before. We are not just talking about the manner in which owners select which races to enter their horses into or how the trainers work wit them.
Instead, the ‘Road To Cheltenham’ is a well-known phrase within the horse racing industry. It is a reference to the races and events that act as trials for the main event, not only because some of them are qualifying races for the main races that take place during the Festival, but also as opportunities for horses to get themselves into prime form before events at Prestbury Park really start to ramp up. In the official Road To Cheltenham, there are six races that horses compete in in order to be in the best form to take on the Champion Hurdle at the Festival.
The Races That Make Up The Road To Cheltenham
We need to be very clear about something here; the Road To Cheltenham is a specific thing that refers to six British and Irish races that take place in the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival. We will look at these here, after which we’ll talk about the more general road to Cheltenham, which is about the races and meetings that give us a bit of an indication of how things are likely to play out when the main event rolls around in March.
First things first, though, here are the six races that make up the Road To Cheltenham, along with an explanation of why they matter:
This Grade 2 National Hunt event takes place at Wincanton Racecourse in early November. It is the first race on the Road To Cheltenham and is open to horses aged four and over. Run over one mile, seven furlongs and 65 yards, it incorporates eight hurdles during its running. The weight information is as followed:
- 4-year-olds and over: 11 stone 0 pounds
- Fillies and mares receive a seven pound allowance
- Grade 1 or Grade 2 hurdle race winners are given a 6 pound penalty
- Grade 3 or Listed hurdle race winners are given a 4 pound penalty
- Novice or juvenile race winners have the penalties halved
Held at Cheltenham Racecourse when it was established in 1992, it was also run over two miles and 110 yards back then. It was moved to Wincanton and given its current length two years later. Run as a limited handicap from 1998 until 2017, the Elite Hurdle has been a weight-for-age conditions race since 2018. To date, Sceau Royal is the race’s most successful horse, having won it for the first time in 2016 before achieving back-to-back victories in 2020 and 2021.
Open to horses aged four and over, the Greatwood Hurdle is one of two of the six races that actually take place at Cheltenham Racecourse. It is run on the Old Course over a distance of two miles and 87 yards, boasting eight hurdles during that time. A handicap event that is run in November, it has had several different titles over the years. It was classed as a Listed race for a time, but is currently run as a Grade 3 event and has done so since it gained the level in 2004.
The race has had numerous sponsors over the years, with the charity for the welfare of retired racehorses, Greatwood, taking on the responsibility between 2003 and 2011. The Racing Post took over from 2012, at which point the event became known as the Racing Post Hurdle, but when the bookmaker Stan James sponsored it the following year, the name Greatwood Hurdle returned. That remained the case, even when Unibet bought Stan James in 2017 and therefore took over the duty of sponsoring the race from the bookie.
The only race of the six that is run in Ireland, the Morgiana Hurdle takes place at Punchestown over two miles and 40 yards. The race is a Grade 1 event and is open to horses aged four and over with a weight of 11 stone and 12 pounds. As is so often the case, fillies and mares receive an allowance of seven pounds. It is another of the November races, with this one being run right-handed on the turf track that the Irish course boasts. Punchestown is a good comparison to Cheltenham, given that it hosts its own Festival.
The event was competed over two and a half miles and was a Listed event for a period. It had its distance cut by two furlongs in 1992, receiving Grade 2 status two years later. It got given its Grade 1 level in 2006, having been shortened to the current length that it is run over 11 years earlier. Two horses have won the race on three occasions since 1988, with Limestone Lad being the first to so between 1999 and 2002 before Hurricane Fly managed it in consecutive years between 2012 and 2014. No jockey has won the race more than Paul Carberry and no trainer more often than Willie Mullins.
Fighting Fifth Hurdle
It is back to England for the next race on the Road To Cheltenham, with Newcastle Racecourse hosting the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. The race was run for the first time in 1969, with the event’s title referring to the Fighting Fifth, which is the nickname of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Having previous been a Grade 2 event, the race was briefly relegated to be Listed during the 1990s. It was given its Grade 1 status in 2004 and is now run as the first top-grade race of the National Hunt season in Britain.
Open to horses aged four and over, the race is run left-handed and horses have a weight of 11 stone and seven pounds, with fillies and mares given a seven pound allowance. Taking place over two miles 46 yards, the event features eight hurdles. As well as being part of the Road To Cheltenham, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle is also the first leg in the Triple Crown of Hurdling. Comedy of Errors won the race three times in 1972, 1973 and 1974, with Birds Nest repeating the trick in 1976, 1977 and 1979. Birds Nest also won it in 1980 but was relegated to second after a stewards’ inquiry.
We return to Cheltenham for the penultimate race of the Road, with the International Hurdle taking place each December. A Grade 2 event that was first run in 1963, it is open to horses aged four and over with a weight of 11 stone. Run on the New Course over two miles and 179 yards, the race boasts the same eight hurdles as all of the other races on the list. The fact that this event was originally known as the Cheltenham Trial Hurdle will help you to understand exactly why it finds itself on our list as a preparatory event.
In 1964 Magic Court won the race, having won the Champion Hurdle earlier in the season. Salmon Spray then won the 1965 iteration of the International Hurdle before going on to win the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival later that season. Despite only winning the race for the first time in 2000, no trainer has notched up more wins than Nicky Henderson. Richard Johnson is the event’s most successful jockey, whilst three horses to date have been in the winner’s enclosure three times: Birds Nest, Relkeel and The New One.
Champion Hurdle Trial
The last big race before the Cheltenham Festival hits is the Champion Hurdle Trial. As you might imagine, this is the final opportunity for trainers and owners to have a sense of where their horse is at in relation to their competitors. There are some that think that the Road To Cheltenham is actually just about three races, beginning with the Fighting Fifth Hurdle before taking in the International Hurdle and culminating here at Haydock Park. Regardless, this Grade 2 event is run over one mile, seven furlongs and 144 yards.
There are nine hurdles to jump during the race, setting it apart from the others and adding an extra challenge than even the Champion Hurdle itself offers. Open to horses aged four and over, it was first run in 1981 and has boasted its Grade 2 status since 2003. Dato Star was the only horse to have won the event more than once, managing it in 1998 and then again in 2000, but in 2015 a new star turned up. The New One won the race four times in succession between 2015 and 2018, writing his name in the record books.
What It’s All For
The preparatory events are all run in order to get participating horses ready for the Champion Hurdle, which is the most prestigious hurdling event that comes under the auspices of the National Hunt. First run in 1927, it truly came to prominence between 1947 and 1965, during which time there were just three winners of the race. Another golden era was achieved during the 1970s, with many names that we’ve already discussed coming to the fore, such as Persian War and Comedy of Errors. In 1984, Dawn Run became just the second mare to win the event.
The Champion Hurdle has been the standout race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival since 1980, having moved between days before that. Five horses have won the race three times, with Istabraq the most recent do so thanks to his wins in 1998, 1999 and 2000. No trainer has won the event more times than Nicky Henderson, whilst no owner has been in the winner’s enclosure more often than J. P. McManus. Open to horses aged four and over, the Champion Hurdle is run over two miles and 87 yards, featuring eight hurdles during that time.
The weight information for the Champion Hurdle is as follows:
- 4-year-olds: 11 stone 3 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Fillies and mares receive a 7 pound allowance
As well as being the conclusion of the official Road To Cheltenham, the Champion Hurdle is also the final race in the Triple Crown of Hurdling. It comes after the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and the Christmas Hurdle and Kribensis is the only horse to win it in the same season; an achievement managed in the 1989 to 1990 campaign. Between 2006 and 2010, the World Bet Exchange offered a £1 million bonus to any horse that won all three races in the same season. Only Punjabi and Go Native came close, with My Tent Or Yours and Faugheen doing so since the bonus was withdrawn.
Other Things To Think About
Whilst the above races are all part of the official Road To Cheltenham, there is an unofficial one that it is worth thinking about. These are the meetings and races that are worth keeping half an eye on in the build-up to the Festival proper because of the information that they can give you before you need to place your bets. The obvious first place to start is with the November Meeting, which takes place at Cheltenham Racecourse and is the first chance of the new season to see many of the names that will be looking to win in March.
The Greatwood Hurdle is part of the November Meeting, but other big races like the Paddy Power Gold Cup, the Shloer Chase and the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase can offer some real insights into what to expect come Festival week. In 2020, Put The Kettle On won the Shloer ahead of victory in the Champion Chase, whilst The Shunter was victorious in the Greatwood Hurdles before winning the Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase in March. They are just a couple of examples of races during the November Meeting that proved important later in the season.
Festival Trials Day
The clue really is in the name when it comes to the Festival Trials Day, which offers seven races at Prestbury Park before the main event rolls around. Taking place towards the end of January, Festival Trials Day promises a look at horses thanks to events such as the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, the Novices Handicap Chase and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle Trial. Throw in the likes of the Sleeve Hurdle and you’re being presented with a real opportunity to get a sense of how participants are likely to cope when the Festival proper gets underway.
King George VI Chase
If any race were to give the Cheltenham Gold Cup a run for its money in terms of prestige then there’s no doubt that it would be the King George VI Chase. It takes place at Kempton Park on Boxing Day and you get a sense of its importance when you learn that there is often a £1 million bonus on the line for any horse that wins both it and the Gold Cup. Even if you’re not likely to see the winner, what it will provide you with is a chance to see which horses are looking in fine fettle before heading to Gloucestershire.
Peter Marsh Chase Day
We mentioned the Champion Hurdle Trial earlier, which takes place at Haydock Park in January. That is during Peter Marsh Chase Day, a meeting that offers another chance to check out some of the Cheltenham Festival hopefuls. The Peter Marsh Handicap Chase is the feature race of the day, being a Grade 2 event that shows off the best-in-class top-chasers. The day also sees the likes of the Altcar Novices’ Chase and the Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle taking place, which are both well worth watching for some clues.