It has reached that time of year again in the UK when a portion of the country, along with a significantly larger portion of Ireland, seems to go crazy over the Cheltenham Festival.
Meanwhile, the rest of us wonder what on earth it is all about.
So, why does this meeting inspire such passion among so many people? And how can it best be enjoyed by the discerning modern gentleman who perhaps wants to soak up some of the magic but does not want to get too caught up in any melees? This latter point, by the way, is crucial. That is because the Cheltenham Festival does pull in huge numbers of people (mainly men) who enjoy a glass or two over the course of each afternoon and become increasingly raucous as the day, and the drink, wear on! In fact, it is said that attendees at the Cheltenham Festival drink somewhere in the region of 220,000 pints of Guinness and 20,000 bottles of Champagne between them over the four-day meeting.
Anyway, we digress. So, for the completely uninitiated, the Cheltenham Festival is a little bit like the cup finals for all sorts of different classes of hurdlers and jumpers (which is generally referred to as National Hunt racing). The four-day meeting is the apex and culmination of the jump racing season and by far the most important social event in its calendar. And as Britain and Ireland lead the world in the quality of their hurdlers and jumpers, the festival is the world’s most important meeting for devotees of National Hunt the world over.
To some extent, it’s also a case of Britain versus Ireland. Irish-trained horses win around 40 per cent of the races each year, which is a remarkably good performance from a country of just 4.8 million people – although a huge proportion of those people are of course crazy about jumps racing.
The Irish make their way over to Cheltenham in their several tens of thousands each March for the Festival meeting. So, if you are thinking about going in any particular year and have not booked a hotel nearby, forget about it. You need to book well in advance.
As for this year’s big meeting, it takes place between Tuesday 10th March and Friday 13th March.
The Gentleman’s dress code
If you are going this year or thinking about it for the future, what should you wear? This all depends on which Cheltenham enclosure you are going to. In the Cheltenham premium “Best Mate” enclosure (the best and most expensive area) there is no formal dress code. That said, you will probably want to dress smartly but in a slightly countrified style to feel at home and look the part. Obviously, mid-March is a time of year when the weather is hugely unpredictable, so keep a close eye on the forecast and dress accordingly. Most gentlemen wear a suit or similar in the “Best Mate” Club Enclosure, as well as in the restaurants and various hospitality facilities. Think tweeds and brogues!
Where to be?
If all this is new to you and you simply want to relax and enjoy the atmosphere along with a nice meal, a civilised glass of wine or two and a great view of the course, then Cheltenham’s Panoramic Restaurant is the place to be. The restaurant is on the fifth floor of the grandstand right over the winning post with some amazing views over the entire course. Tables can be booked for parties of either four or 12, including as part of a shared table. This is the way to do things in a relaxed yet elegant style.
The major races and a little history
It goes without saying that multi-millions are bet on the Cheltenham Festival each year. Fortunes are made and lost and particularly on the big races. It is always worth studying the odds before you visit the Festival. If you get a chance far in advance of the event, you can get better odds in the ante-post, although this comes with the risk that your horse or jockey may not be fit when race-day arrives.
The two main races are the Champion Hurdle, which is run on the Tuesday and the Gold Cup, which is run on the Friday. But each of the four days has a “champion” event. In addition to the two mentioned, these are the Queen Mother Champion Chase on the Wednesday and the World Hurdle on the Thursday.
The Champion Hurdle is run over two miles. Some big name winners from the past include the likes of National Spirit, Istabraq, Hatton’s Grace, Persian War and Lanzarote – all of whom have had races named after them.
Only four horses have ever managed to win three Champion Hurdles. These are Hatton’s Grace (in 1949, 1950, and 1951), Sir Ken (1952, 1953, and 1954), Persian War (1968, 1969, and 1970), See You Then (1985, 1986, and 1987) and Istabraq (1998, 1999, and 2000).
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is a relatively short jumps race, which is run over two miles. The race was given its title in 1980 for the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday and the good lady herself owned the 1976 runner-up Game Spirit.
Only one horse has so far managed to win the race three times. That is Badsworth Boy (in 1983, 1984, and 1985). But current jockey Barry Geraghty has a record-equalling five wins with Moscow Flyer (in both 2003 and 2005), Big Zeb (2010), Finian’s Rainbow (2012), and Sprinter Sacre (2013).
The World Hurdle, meanwhile, is a relatively long distance for a hurdle race run over three miles. The race was only introduced in 1972, since when one horse was managed to win it four times. That is Big Buck’s – the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 winner.
But the biggest race of them all is the Gold Cup. This is the single most prestigious chase in the racing world. Run over three miles, two and half furlongs with 22 fences to be jumped in all. It is a true test of stamina and class.
The incredible Golden Miller won an unprecedented five Gold Cups in a row between 1932 and 1936, whilst Cottage Rake (1948, 1949, and 1950), Arkle (1964, 1965, and 1966) and Best Mate (2002, 2003, and 2004) each won three Gold Cups.
Meanwhile, in 1983, the trainer Michael Dickinson trained all the first five horses home. These were Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House in that order. That is an unbelievable feat that will surely never be equalled.
Cheltenham is a race meeting like no other and it’s something you have to see at least once as part of any discerning gentleman’s bucket-list. So do it in style!