Once again the Cheltenham Festival is over and gone in what feels like a matter of minutes. There are few events in sport as a whole, let alone horse racing specifically, that match the Festival in terms of a fever-pitch level of excitement from those that love to watch it. Little wonder, therefore, that we were all so ready for this year’s event to get underway and boy oh boy did it get off with a bang. A thrilling and emotional Tuesday lived up to the hype created by that Cheltenham Roar that we all love so much, with the other days following suit.
As with every year, there were stories to be enjoyed all over the show. Heading into the event, one of the biggest questions was about whether Willie Mullins on his own could rack up more winners than the rest of the British trainers put together. There was also a question around Rachael Blackmore and if she could continue the fine run of form that saw her named Champion Jockey two years ago. It was an emotional Festival for all sorts of reasons, which merely served to enhance its reputation before we all head to Prestbury Park and do it again in a year’s time.
Irish Dominance At Cheltenham Continues
It’s no secret that in the last 20 years Irish trained horses have given British trained horses a run for their money but in more recent years it has become a walk over for the Irish runners. This year the Prestbury Cup was yet again retained by Ireland who’s trainers managed 18 wins to Britain’s 10. That is the exact same result as in 2022.
This is now the eighth time in a row that Ireland have retained the cup, it was tied in 2019 but as holders Ireland still retained it. The dominance wasn’t quite as stark as in 2021 when Ireland trained 23 winners to Britain’s 5 but given over the past eight years Ireland have 141 wins to Britain’s 82, it shows that the host nation has a long way to go before they can win the Prestbury Cup again. This is even more amazing when you consider Ireland only field around 40% of the horses and Britain around 60% at the Festival.
Things could actually have been much worse for the UK going into the final day with 6 wins to Ireland’s 15. Four British winners on Gold Cup Day helped bring the score back to a more competitive figure.
The Top Trainer title yet again goes to Willie Mullins with 6 wins, however, his dominance this year hasn’t been quite as big as last year with ten Irish trainers contributing to the Ireland’s total including Gordon Elliott with 3 wins and Henry de Bromhead also with 3 wins. If anything this should be more worrying for the Brits as in the past you could blame the Irish stronghold on Mullins but now we see that more Irish trainers are pitching in. Still that isn’t to say that Mullins isn’t the best Cheltenham Festival trainer ever with the most records to boot.
Frankly it is hard to see Britain winning the Prestbury Cup again in the near future. Nicky Henderson, who has held up the British end for a long time, only fielded 1 winner this year – although, to be fair it was the Champion Hurdle winner Constitution Hill – and there doesn’t seem to be a natural heir to replace him – although, Paul Nicholls and Dan Skelton both played their part with 2 wins each.
This is in contrast to the Irish situation where there are a number of trainers waiting in the wings for when Mullins eventually retires, namely the next Mullins that takes over, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead.
Of course, the Irish also won the Top Jockey title yet again, with 5 wins for Paul Townend to win it for the second year in a row and the third time overall. That Irish run has only been broken once in sixteen years and that was in 2019 when Nico de Boinville won for GB.
Constitution Hill Proves He’s A Superstar
As far as the punters were concerned, there was very little drama to be had out of Constitution Hill’s participation in the Champion Hurdle. They were on him in a big way, seeing his Starting Price drop to 4/11.
Those broadcasting the race were trying to suggest that it wasn’t quite a foregone conclusion, talking up the chances of State Man in spite of the fact that Nicky Henderson’s charge was in imperious form heading to Prestbury Park. The six-year-old won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last time out, which was part of five wins in succession at an aggregate of 77 lengths.
There was a feeling that he might be developing into one of the sport’s greats, but could he live up to the hype? You bet he could. He absolutely stormed the Champion Hurdle, adding a few more lengths to that aggregate total and leaving State Man absolutely miles behind. Though he skimmed the top of the fence at the last, it would be misleading to suggest that he was anything other than exceptional in his jumping. At the end of the race, Nico De Boinville declared that he had ‘loads left’, leaving many to question just where the rest of his career might end up taking him.
Barely A Dry Eye In The House For Honeysuckle
If you thought that Constitution Hill was the talking point from Day One of the Festival then you’d be sadly mistaken. That honour was taken by Honeysuckle, who had made history two years earlier by taking Rachael Blackmore to the first win for a female rider in the Champion Hurdle. Back then, there was no one at the racecourse to cheer the pair home, which was reversed last year when they won it again and were given the raucous reception that they should have received 12 months prior. Heading into this one, everyone knew it would be the mare’s last race.
Having won 16 races in succession heading into the meeting at Fairyhouse in December, there was a sense of shock when she lost that one. Another defeat in the Irish Champion Hurdle suggested to many that her time was up, with only the romantics backing her to win the Champion Hurdle once more. What added to the sense of drama was the fact that Blackmore was once again riding her for Henry De Bromhead, who had lost his 13-year-old son Jack in a racing accident at the Glenbeigh Racing Festival last September, resulting in all following races being cancelled.
There will have been many people inside Prestbury Park that were backing Honeysuckle to make it an emotional farewell and even the bookmakers will doubtless have raised a smile for De Bromhead and his family when the mare lived up to that promise. If there were any dry eyes at the end of the race they would doubtless have teared up when they heard De Bromhead say, “It’s just a massive result. We know Jack is always with us and I’m sure he was here on Rachael’s shoulder. Honeysuckle has been a huge part of our life and Jack just adored her, so she as much did it for him as she did for all of us.”
Sadly, that sense of the stars shining down on de Bromhead and family didn’t extend to the Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, which was named in honour of the youngster. Everyone in Cheltenham was willing on the de Bromhead horses, of which there were five in the race, but it just wasn’t to be. In the end, Gavin Sheehan rode You Wear It Well to victory for Jamie Snowden, taking her to the front early on and never relinquishing the lead. Magical Zoe did come in second, but it wasn’t to be for the de Bromhead family. Even so, they will have been touched by the tributes shown to Jack by the racing fraternity.
Energumene Hurts The Bookies
For all of his success, Willie Mullins had never won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham. That all changed last year when Paul Townend rode Energumene to victory for the trainer, which was repeated this year.
It was good news for punters, including one that had staked £400,000 for a £580,000 return. If the bettors are happy, though, it means that the bookmakers very much are not and Energumene’s win was yet another success for a favourite in a Festival that was rarely kind to them. El Fabiolo got proceedings underway in the second race of Day One, which saw just two non-favourites win.
Things were much better on Day Two, with Energumene being the first favourite in the fourth race, whilst no other favourite even so much as placed apart from Gerri Colombe. Things for the bookies were made even worse when Delta Work won the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase for the second successive season, again as the favourite.
If the bookmakers were hurting already, that was a result that made them wince even harder as they saw their bank balances take another almighty hit. Will he win it once more next year and match Tiger Roll’s three wins in the race? Who knows, but many will now wonder if he’s a good bet for the Grand National.
A Dream To Share
When it comes to the future of the National Hunt, few events give us something to talk about quite like the Champion Bumper. The flat race even at the Cheltenham Festival has produced some real stars over the years, letting everyone know what to expect from a horse when running under jump racing rules, even if it isn’t having to jump.
The same can be said of this year’s even, which saw the appropriately named Dream To Share take home the spoils. It was one of the few moments of relief for the bookmakers, given the fact that the 7/2 chance took the win away from 16/5 favourite Fact To File.
In the wake of the race, the sense of those that had watched it was that the horse could be absolutely anything in the future. Indeed, it says something about his ability that no sooner had he crossed the finish line in first was he backed into single digits for the 2024 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. The majority of punters will have just been enjoying another day’s thrilling racing, but that is not how the best bettors tend to react to what they are seeing take place in front of them, so don’t be surprised if A Dream To Share offers us something special in 12 months’ time.
Envoi Allen Completes Trilogy
There aren’t many horses that have seen victory over every type of race that there is to win, let alone doing it specifically at the Cheltenham Festival. Not many horses have Rachael Blackmore riding them for Henry de Bromhead, however.
In the Ryanair Chase, that is exactly the combination that Envoi Allen had going for him. De Bromhead and Blackmore seemingly adore Prestbury Park and that showed as the pair worked well to see Envoi Allen to his third victory at the Festival. That alone is impressive, but it is even better when you remember the races he’s won.
His first win in the Festival came in 2019 when he was under the tutorship of Gordon Elliott and Jamie Codd was in the saddle. That was in the Champion Bumper, a flat race run under National Hunt rules. The natural progression from there is to go to hurdles, which Envoi Allen did by winning the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle, still under Elliott’s training but this time with Davy Russell riding. Many horses stay over hurdles, but when he moved over to the yard of de Bromhead the decision was taken to move him into steeplechasing, which paid off royally here.
Both de Bromhead and Blackmore have won the Ryanair before, though not working together. The trainer won it in 2018 when Davy Russell took Balko des Flos to victory, whilst Blackmore won it on Allaho two years ago on her way to being crowned the Champion Jockey. They worked together for Envoi Allen’s third Festival win in the Grade 1 event, proving that he could complete the unusual trilogy of winning a bumper, a hurdle and a steeplechase all during the Cheltenham Festival. Ten-year-olds have won this even before, so would you put it past Envoi Allen doing it again in 2024?
Sire Du Berlais Three Time Winner At 33/1
Cheltenham racecourse seems to bring out the best in some horses and this was very much the case when Sire Du Berlais romped home to win the Stayers’ Hurdle at 33/1, the joint-second longest odds winner of the week.
At 11 years old the horse who won the Final Handicap Hurdle in 2019 and 2020 and finished second in the Stayers’ in 2021 was largely a forgotten afterthought. The Gordon Elliott trained runner rolled back the years to become the first eleven year old to win the race since 1986.
The only horse older to win the race was a 13 year old back in 1927. The average age of the winner from 2000 to 2022 was just 7.14 years old.
With 3 wins from 6 races at Cheltenham it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Sire Du Berlais up his game again and it is a win that the bookies will celebrate after so many big favourites won in the first two days.
Mullins Bags His Third Gold Cup
Back in 2019 people whispered about whether Mullins would ever win a Gold Cup to complete the set at Cheltenham. He duly did with Al Boum Photo two years in a row. With Galopin Des Champs win in 2023 he now has three Gold Cup’s to his name in just five years, as does Paul Townend who rode all three of the winners.
Galopin Des Champs sat back in the race before unleashing his talent on the approach to the final fence, eventually romping home to win by over five lengths to give Mullins his 94th win at the Festival.
Ahoy Senior led the race for long periods before falling at the 17th and only second placed Bravesmansgame was really in the race come the end.
66/1 Premier Magic Longest Odds Winner
Cheltenham is very much dominated by the favourites in the Championship races but every year one of the big field chases will throw up a long odds winner. This year it was Premier Magic at 66/1 in the Foxhunter Challenge Cup, ridden and trained by Bradley Gibbs.
It was quite a bizarre race with several fallers and horses unseating riders, including last years winner Billaway. This lead to several loose horses and one that took the lead confusing the leading pack (see picture).
Several horses were brought to a stand still by the loose runners on the run in but Premier Magic held his composure to take the win at the longest odds of the week.
Attendance Down After Record 2022
Following the 2022 Cheltenham Festival setting new attendance records every day the course decided to actually reduce the maximum attendance in 2023 following reports that the event was too crowded. As things turned out that new maximum cap didn’t actually matter for all days except gold cup day as attendance was down by around 40,000 over the four days compared to 2022:
- Champion Day: 60,284 (68,567 in 2022)
- Ladies Day: 50,387 (64,431 in 2022)
- St. Patrick’s Thursday: 62,429 (73,754 in 2022)
- Gold Cup Day: 68,500 (73,875 in 2022)
Gold Cup Day saw lower attendance than in 2022 but that was because the capacity was capped at 68,500, more tickets could have been sold. Attendance was, however, 8,216 lower that capacity on Tuesday (88% capacity), 18,113 lower on Wednesday (74% capacity) and 6,071 on Thursday (91% capacity).
Compared to 2022 there were 12% fewer people on day 1, 22% less people turned up on day 2 and 15% fewer on day 3. Gold Cup Day was down 7% but only due to the new attendance cap.
There are several reasons why attendance may be down:
- 2022 saw a bounce-back following covid that was unlikely to be replicated
- The cost of Cheltenham tickets and accommodation has priced people out, especially considering the cost of living crisis and levels of inflation
- Ongoing rail strikes may have put some off attending
- The weather was mostly wet through the week
- The Irish domination of the Festival may put some racegoers off
Ultimately there is little to worry about right now as there are logical reasons why less people can afford an expensive day out at the races this year compared with past years. What will be telling is how Cheltenham attendances are affected in the coming years and whether British people are falling out of love with the traditional day out at the races or whether this is just a temporary blip.
The racecourse itself lost out on around £1.25 million in tickets sales, compared to what they could sell at capacity. This doesn’t factor in the additional money spent on food, drink, bets and other things at the course and in the local economy. One of the reasons capacity was capped was due to locals complaining about disruption in the town but the result is less money in the economy, on Gold Cup Day at least. You can’t have it both ways unfortunately.