The Cheltenham Festival has always been a funny one when it comes to the weather. Being in mid-March it can almost be anything; cold, wet, sunny, warm, snow, frost, etc. We’ve seen it all in the past but whatever the weather does it doesn’t detract from the spectacle.
For the 2023 Festival the Going has been changed from good to soft to soft just four days before the action starts, following an artic blast that hit the country this week.
The course has seen around 12mm of rain land in a short space of time and as of Friday morning the course was blanketed in a layer of snow on top of that. The snow will stop the water underneath from evaporating initially and then, of course, the snow will melt adding further ground water to the course.
While the weather over the next week is fairly favourable it remains cold with light rain showers here and there. It is unlikely that the course will dry out enough to change the Going in this time. The weekend is expected to be largely dry on Saturday with a band of rain moving through from Sunday evening into Monday. There is 5-8mm of rain expected Monday with the rest of the week seeing scattered showers.
The old course, on which the first two days of the Festival is run, is certainly going to be soft. The new course, used for Thursday and Friday could fare better if the rain holds off in the coming days, time will tell on that but expect the Going to also be soft, good in places (instead of good, soft in places). The same is true for the cross-country course that hosts the Cross-Country Chase on Ladies Day.
Why Does It Matter?
The softer the ground the further horses dig into it when they run and jump over fences. This naturally slows the pace of the races and makes it more of a slog for the runners. Some horses favour firmer, faster and harder ground whereas others do better on softer slower ground.
It makes a big difference in the betting markets with new favourites expected to emerge in some races following the news the Going will be soft. This can be annoying if you have placed an ante-post bet on a horse that favours good ground but conversely could play to your advantage if you backed runners that favour softer ground.
Some horses may also be withdrawn or entered into different races if the ground continues to soften. Ultimately an owner and trainer will only run a horse if it has a decent chance.
What Horses Will Benefit?
The opening race of the Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, will definitely be on soft ground and while the favourite is unlikely to change, Facile Vega, some horses such as Tahmuras have already drifted in as punters back it due to its good form on soft ground. Having won his two last outings on soft ground, which included the grade 1 Talworth hurdle. Indeed, last years winner of the Supreme, Constitution Hill, did exactly that.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is always a close race given the calibre of the runners and this year the market can’t decide whether it favours Edwardstone or Energumene. Until now Edwardstone has shaded it but with soft ground expected money is beginning to mount on Energumene.
This is a more complicated one as all three of Energumene’s losses this year have been on softer ground but at the same time some of his best wins have been on soft ground too. If he is feeling it on the day then this is the horse that could take most advantage of the conditions.
In the Stayers’ Hurdle on St Patrick’s Thursday it is Teahupoo that has moved up the market the most since the soft ground was announced. Blazing Khal remians favourite for now but only just and with Teahupoo showing distinct form and is unbeaten in the last seven starts on soft ground. This is still a long race for the Gordon Elliott trained Teahupoo but the slower pace is likely to help him a lot.
Finally for the big race of the week, The Gold Cup, it is Protektorat that could gain the greatest benefit. The horse had fallen out of favour having been an early favourite for the Gold Cup last year, drifting to as high as 20/1. The news of soft ground has already seen that price shorten.
Having finished third in last years Gold Cup and already a winner over Cheltenham hurdles with soft ground there is new excitement around his chances in the biggest race of the week. His best two runs last year came on soft ground and he comes from a line of horses that are know for their ability in soft ground racing. Hewick is likely to be hindered the most in this race with some heavy defeats on soft ground.
Some others that could benefit from the ground include Three Card Brag in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on Friday. He favours heavier ground and a slower pace and although he has been entered into the Coral Cup too, it is now likely he will run the Albert Bartlett. Gerri Colombe in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase on Wednesday could also fare well with an unbeaten record and several big wins on soft ground.
Two others that might be worth avoiding include Camprond in the Coral Cup on Wednesday, who clearly races best on good ground, as well as Banbridge in the Turners Novices’ Chase on Thursday. He has won on soft ground but his best races have always been on a firmer surface.