Why Has The Cheltenham Festival Become So Big?

festival 400It’s not as though there are a lack of horse racing events during the calendar year. The fact that jump racing and flat racing is split in two means that there’s always some form of racing to watch, with all-weather tracks also becoming more popular. The Classics in flat racing and the likes of the Grand National in jump racing offer plenty of options for those hoping to watch nothing but top-class racing during the year, so why is it that the Cheltenham Festival remains so incredibly popular?

The point being that it’s not as if there’s a lack of choice for punters when it comes to big races to bet on during the year, so why is the Festival so all-consuming when it rolls around? Is it just because of the number of races that are run during the week? Or is there something more to it than that?

The National Hunt’s blue-riband event brings out not only the best horses in the business but also the most successful trainers and the owners that consider a Cheltenham win to be among there finest achievements, so what is it about Prestbury Park that the industry loves so much?

Each Day Offers A Prestigious Race

champion hurdle

The first place to start has to be with the races. The Grand National will always be considered to be one of the finest races run in the UK, but the three days of racing that surrounds the big one are largely ignored by all but the most vociferous supporters of the Aintree event. The Gold Cup matches the National in terms of being the biggest race of the Festival, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the week falls by the wayside. Instead, around a quarter of a million people rock up to the Gloucestershire course to watch the racing during the meeting, making it one of the most popular in the country.

The reason they do that isn’t because the food is great or the Guinness is cheap, but rather because the spectators in attendance get to watch top-class racing regardless of the day that they’re lucky enough to be on the course. Obviously the Gold Cup will always take the title of the week’s most important race, but there are fourteen Grade 1 races in total run between the Tuesday and the Friday, so it would be unfair to suggest that it’s the only one that anyone is interested in. Add to that the fact that those fourteen races are split reasonably fairly over the week and you can see just why racegoers love it so much.

Here’s how those Grade 1 races were split over the week in 2019:

Each day has its own ‘standout’ race, with the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Gold Cup widely considered to be the key races for each of them. Yet you can see that pretty much any of them could take the title and the sheer number of opportunities for punters to find a stunning race that suits there needs means that it will always be a meeting that is immensely popular.

There Are Plenty Of Races For Future Learning

fred winter juvinille handicap chase ladies day race information boardThere’s nothing that punters love more than spotting a horse for the future and watching it go on to develop into a world-beater, so the fact that the Cheltenham Festival contains so many races for novices’ certainly adds to its popularity. Here’s a look at the races specifically for the less experienced horses during Cheltenham week:

  • Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
  • Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase
  • Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle
  • Fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Handicap Hurdle
  • Golden Miller Novices' Chase
  • Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle
  • Spa Novices' Hurdle

They’re just the races for horses that haven’t yet gained a huge amount of experience. Add in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup and the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle, which are races for the less experienced jockeys, and you can see how those that like to keep half an eye on the future of the industry might just watch the Cheltenham Festival with a notepad and pen.

There’s Plenty Of Money To Be Made

accumulatorLet’s be honest, one of the chief reasons plenty of people enjoy watching horse racing is the battle that they have with the bookies. In excess of £600 million is bet on the various races that take place during Festival week, which means that punters have more than enough opportunities to win that particular battle.

It’s not just that there are so many races to bet on, though, but also that the chance of winning them all is so remote. Remember when Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 and people talked about it as being the finest achievement in any sport ever? Well, they did so after having starting odds of 5,000/1 before a ball was kicked that season. The odds of predicting all of the winners on day one of the Cheltenham Festival in 2016 on the same accumulator were 50,982/1

You might well say that that’s fair enough, but it’s worth noting that the two odds-on favourites that were running in the seven races both won, so it’s not as if it was a day when it was impossible to predict who might run out as the winners in those races. Indeed, the longest priced odds of any winner on the opening day that year was 12/1, so the suggestion that it’s a day for bettors to take the fight to the bookmakers isn’t an exaggeration.

In 2019, for example, one punter won more than £180,000 from a £2 bet when his Tote Placepot bet came in. With it being a pools bet the bookmaker in that particular instance wasn’t that bothered, probably celebrating the fact that more people were likely to pay into the pot in future meetings in the hope of taking away a similar chunk of winnings, from which they’d take their cut. Yet the point remains that for bettors it feels as though the Cheltenham Festival offers a decent chance to take the fight to the bookies and, more importantly, win.

As if to prove the point, Ladbrokes and Coral released figures for their 2018 year in betting at the start of 2019 and it emerged that betting on the Festival accounted for more than half of the top 40 contests that their customers bet on. The Grand National took the top spot, but the Gold Cup came in second, which isn’t bad at all considering it was competing against a race that even those that don’t bet tend to have a flutter on when it rolls around at Aintree in the April of each year. In fact, of the 28 races run during the Festival week only 3 of them didn’t feature in the top 40 most bet on events.

All Of The Best Jump Racing Horses Turn Up

cue card

Perhaps one of the chief reasons that punters adore Cheltenham is that the very best horses in the jump racing discipline turn up to be tested on one of the toughest courses that the industry has to offer. It’s easy to forget that Prestbury Park actually offers three different courses during the week, starting on the Old Course before shifting to the New Course and having the Cross-Country Course thrown in there for good measure.

That means that the horses aren’t just tested by the sheer size and popularity of the meeting but also the different courses that are used over the four days. Around 500 horses turn up to Cheltenham during the week in the hope of winning the top prizes on offer, From the likes of Sprinter Sacre, once described as the Mick Jagger of horse racing, through to the bay gelding Altior, the Festival welcomes the top horses in the field year after year.

Yes, it’s absolutely a meeting to watch if you’re keen on learning about future winners, as mentioned elsewhere, but it’s also the one to watch if you want to see the very horses put through their paces on the biggest stage of all. That interests punters who like to have a flutter as well as those who just appreciate the form of the competitors and want to watch them spread their wings. It’s why the Festival is watched by millions of people all around the world, with TV coverage being among the most popular sports events that there is. If a horse is worth their salt they’ll be at Prestbury Park in March.

That’s to say nothing about the jockeys that ride the horses, of course. Ruby Walsh is the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival and is also one of horse racing’s most successful jump racing jockeys, for example. Richard Johnson is another jockey who thinks of Cheltenham as his second home, winning for the first time on the course in 1999 at the age of 21 before going on to win most of the big races, including the Gold Cup in 2018 on the back of Native River.

The Battle Of The Trainers Is Always Intriguing

british irish flag 1When it comes to intrigue, you can find it all over the place when the Cheltenham Festival rolls around. Yes, the battle of the horses on the track is obviously one of the key areas to watch out for and it’s always interesting to find out which jockeys will be riding on the back of which horses, but arguably the biggest area of contention comes in the form of the battle of the trainers. The honour of being the top trainer at Cheltenham has been important for years, but in the modern version of the meeting that has been turned up to eleventy-stupid.

The battle at the top of the pecking order is unquestionably between Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, who are the top two most successful trainers ever to send horses to Prestbury Park. The most famous owners that turn to the former to train their horses include JP McManus and the Queen, whilst the likes of Jared Sullivan and Rich Ricci depend on the expertise of Mullins to bring them home some winners. The pair have chopped and changed the leading trainer spot between them over the years, adding a weight of importance to every race that is run with one of their horses in the starting field.

They aren’t the only trainers worthy of a mention when Cheltenham rolls around, however. Paul Nicholls is a name that demands to be mentioned when discussing the Festival, having been in charge of the training regimes for both Kauto Star and Denman. There’s a reason that the likes of Judi Dench and Alex Ferguson trust him with their charges. He was also the man behind the success of four-time Stayers’ Hurdle winner Big Buck’s. Then there’s Gordon Elliott, who has no racing pedigree in his family, was entrusted with Michael O’Leary’s stud when the Ryanair owner fell out with Willie Mullins.

Plenty Of Thrills, Spills & Shocks

close up of winning post at cheltenhamThe number of top-class races on offer during the Cheltenham Festival means that one thing is for certain: every year will offer up surprises. Whether it be favourites failing to make it home or a rank outsider crossing the finishing line first when anything but that outcome was expected, the Festival is a meeting to keep your eye on if what you really like is the unusual and unexpected.

Perhaps the best example of that came in 1990 when previous Festival favourite Desert Orchid took to the field and was thought by many to be likely to retain his Gold Cup trophy won the year before. The fact that he finished third wasn’t too much of a shock, but the identity of the winner most certainly was. Norton’s Coin became the first horse to win the Gold Cup with odds of 100/1, doing so for trainer Sirrel Griffiths who was a dairy farmer who trained horses as a hobby!

The Grand National is much-loved because virtually any of the horses in the field can end up as winners, but at Cheltenham you get that sort of shock day-in-day-out pretty much every single year. From Balko Des Flos unexpectedly beating firm favourite Un De Sceax in the Ryanair Chase in 2018 through to Anzum winning the Stayers’ Hurdle as the longest-odds horse ever to do so in 1999, the Festival has always got a shock in store and that’s what makes it such a popular event for punters and viewers alike.

For the history of the Cheltenham festival and Cheltenham racecourse see our other pages.