The Cheltenham Festival is one of the biggest and most exciting meetings on the National Hunt calendar, watched by millions of people around the globe. Set over four days and boasting 28 races in total, there’s a reason it is so loved by the horse racing community. Of the 28 races, four of them fit into the bracket of being Championship offerings.
Whilst the British Horseracing Authority doesn’t exactly define what makes a Championship race, the four races that we’ve given that title to are the most important ones run during the Festival and also the pinnacle of that form of racing for the horses taking part. They are the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup.
Championship At The Cheltenham Festival
Culmination Of A Long Season
The thing that makes most of the races Championship races is the fact that they are the culmination of a long season for the horses running in them. That’s not to suggest that there are specific races that they’ve run in prior to heading to Cheltenham, but rather that each is the most prestigious in its class and the winner is considered to be that class’ champion for that season.
The best thing to do to explain it is to have a look at the various races in more detail, hopefully drawing attention to the manner in which they are considered to be so prestigious.
The Champion Hurdle is the obvious place to start, owing to the fact that it is traditionally held on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Run over 2 miles and 87 yards, it is open to horses aged 4 and over and has the following weight information at play:
- 4-year-olds: 11 stone 2 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
There are eight hurdles to be jumped during the race’s course, which is run on the Cheltenham Old Course. It was run for the first time in 1927 and the winner on the day, Blaris, was given £365 in prize money. It took some time to really establish itself, having been cancelled in 1931 because of frost and then only receiving three entrants in 1932.
Two cancellations followed because of the Second World War, but it was when it returned in peacetime that it truly began to earn a reputation as being one of the most important races for hurdlers. Between 1947 and 1955 there were only three winners of the race, with National Spirit winning it twice and Hatton’s Grace and Sir Ken winning it three times apiece.
Another brilliant period of hurdling came about in the 1970s thanks to winners such as Persian War, Night Nurse and Comedy of Errors, but it was Dawn Run that took the headlines in the 1980s when she became the second mare to win the Champion Hurdle and the only horse to date to have won both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup.
The reason the race is held in such high regard by horse racing lovers is that it is the final leg of both the Road To Cheltenham and the Triple Crown Of Hurdling. The latter involves the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle Racecourse and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park Racecourse and only one horse has won all three races in the same season.
The Road To Cheltenham, meanwhile, is a series that offers participants seven top-class hurdle races in Britain and Ireland. It was an idea developed by Racing For Change, which was created by the British Horseracing Authority as an attempt to fundamentally alter the way in which racing tends to be promoted. Here are the seven races:
- Elite Hurdle at Wincanton Racecourse
- Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse
- Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown Racecourse
- Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle Racecourse
- International Hurdle at Cheltenham
- Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock Park
- Champion Hurdle at The Cheltenham Festival
The first race gets underway in November, with the others taking place subsequently over the following months before it culminates in the Champion Hurdle in March.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
This race began life in 1959 as the National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase. The name was altered to its current one in 1980 when the Queen Mother celebrated her 80th birthday. A successful owner of horses herself and particularly keen on chasers, the Queen Mother was a strong supporter of jump racing and the Jockey Club.
The race is for chasers aged 5 and over with weight of 11 stone and 10 pounds, though mares are given a 7 pound allowance. Run over 1 mile, 7 furlongs and 199 yards, there are 13 fences that participants will need to clear if they’re hoping to win the race. Typically the feature race of day two of the Cheltenham Festival, it is the National Hunt’s leading minimum-distance chase.
The list of names of horses that have won this race is an impressive one, with the likes of Fortria, Dunkirk and Crisp on there. The latter horse is famed for offering Red Rum a stern test during his first Grand National win in 1973, leading the eventual winner by 15 lengths over the last but eventually missing out by just under a length.
If that isn’t enough of a sign of how important this race is to medium-distance chasers, have a look at the list of names of horses that have won it twice in relatively recent times:
- Master Minded
- Moscow Flyer
- Sprinter Sacre
The race’s most successful horse was Badsworth Boy, who won it on three consecutive occasions between 1983 and 1985. He might well have been even more successful if not for the fact that he suffered from arthritis throughout his racing career.
The race is considered to be the pinnacle of races for chasers, which is why it is held in such high regard by those that enjoy watching the Cheltenham Festival and horse racing in general. It is the most prestigious chase on the National Hunt’s calendar, hence being considered as a Championship race.
The Stayers’ Hurdle has a complicated history. It began life in 1912 as a Weight-For-Age selling race, resulting in the victorious horse being sold for £50 at the race’s conclusion. It was dropped from the Cheltenham Festival’s line-up altogether in 1928, 1929 and from 1939 to 1945. Then, when it did return in 1946, it replaced the Spa Hurdle on the Festival’s race card.
What makes it particularly confusing is that the Spa Hurdle was run over 3 miles between 1946 and 1967 and then was renamed as the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1972. It has been sponsored by numerous different companies, becoming the World Hurdle when Ladbrokes took over sponsorship in 2005. It is run over 2 miles, 7 furlongs and 213 yards.
Open to horses aged 4 and over, there are 12 hurdles to be jumped during the race and the following weight information applies:
- 4-year-olds: 11 stone 0 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Fillies and mares are given a 7 pound allowance
It is the feature race on the third day of the Cheltenham Festival for the simple reason that it is the leading long-distance hurdle event on the National Hunt’s calendar. It is the culmination of a long season for long-distance hurdlers, with the winner believed to be the champion of that discipline. Big Buck’s has won the race more than any other horse thanks to four victories.
Other winners include Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Thistlecrack, proving the quality of the race.
When it comes to prestigious races, you don’t get much better than the Cheltenham Gold Cup. You can read about the race in far more detail elsewhere on the site, so we’re only really going to look at its place as a Championship race here. The most valuable non-handicap race in Britain, the list of former winners is like a horse racing who’s who:
- Best Mate
- Golden Miller
- Kauto Star
- Mill House
It is the most prestigious race on the National Hunt calendar, considered to be a Blue Riband event by the world of horse racing, it is of course run on the aptly named Gold Cup Day. Originally a flat race, it was run over jumps for the first time in 1924 and has been ever since. No horse has won the race more times than Golden Miller, who was victorious five times consecutively between 1932 and 1936.
Open to horses aged 5 and up, the race is run over 3 miles, 2 furlongs and 70 yards and boasts the following weight information:
- 5-year-olds: 11 stone 8 pounds
- 6-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Mares are given an allowance of 7 pounds
There are 22 fences that need to be jumped during the race, which is part of why it’s considered to be such an important one in jump racing. Though there are no specific races that horses need to win before taking part in the Gold Cup, there are some throughout the season that are aimed at by trainers to see if their horses will have what it takes to compete in this one.
As stated elsewhere on the page, there are no specific things that any of the races have in terms of rules that make them Championship races. Instead, they fit the brief on account of being the most important National Hunt events within each discipline. The Gold Cup is the crowning race of any horse’s career, but the others are equally important for the various stages.