When the Cheltenham Festival begins on March 10th the excitable crowd of 75,000 spectators in the Grandstand will honour an age old tradition as the tape is cut for the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle. The normal, gentle buzz of noise will become a throaty rumble which is so iconic it has acquired its own name – the Cheltenham Roar.
The Cheltenham area has a long association with racing; the first event called the “Cheltenham Gold Cup”, now the name of the festival’s most prestigious race, was run in July 1819. By 1860 there was an established National Hunt Meeting at Cheltenham – the first direct precursor to the modern festival. However it wasn’t until the current course was established at Prestbury Park, in 1904, that the “Cheltenham Festival” was officially established. After a hiatus it returned in 1911 whence it has continued from strength to strength – save for 2 extended pauses rudely imposed by our German cousins.
Part of The Festival’s magic is that the 2 courses at Prestury Park (the “old” and “new” courses), are particularly challenging and can wrongfoot even the most powerful thoroughbreds. The new course, in particular, has a downhill fence and a gruelling run in for steeplechasers; while hurdle races have the majority of their jumps early – with only two fences in the last 7 furlongs. This requires that champion horses are able to jump well but also keep pace in a long final leg.
In recent years animal rights protesters have begun focusing their attention on the big festivals – particularly Aintree and Cheltenham. The tough courses and large fields at marquee events leads to a higher risk of serious injury for both jockeys and riders. In fact Animal Aid claim that 4x as many horses have died at Cheltenham as on any other British racecourse since 2007. Although this could be a statistical fluke, but it is unfortunately true that in the last several years horses have been put down at each Festival. It can be quite a disturbing sight to see a writhing horse covered by vets and destroyed – but for the moment the racing community is averse to significant change. Last year jockey Ruby Walsh received death threats after downplaying the significance of horse fatalities, so it seems the public may not agree.
Nowadays, The Festival is run over 4 days; which this year are 10th-13th March. During that time Cheltenham plays host to a circus of owners, trainers, jockeys, press, paparazzi, bookies and, of course, over 250,000 raucous spectators determined to get the most from this spectacular event. Bookmakers will swarm the tote pool at Cheltenham – where slatted chalkboard are only just being replaced by digital screens. Although plenty of cash will change hands there, most of the £600m wagered over the 4 day event will be online or at high street shops.
For British bookmakers Coral, preparations for Cheltenham start months in advance. Every race featuring a potential contender is methodically examined for information which could affect pricing – a fractional mistake in offered odds could take millions from the bottom line. Like several other bookies they also sponsor one of Cheltenham’s premier races – The Coral Cup.
The Festival is firmly rooted in tradition – not surprising as members of the Royal Family are frequent visitors. The Queen, who owns a stable of racecourses, has fielded entries to the Cheltenham Gold Cup and members of the family including The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have made appearances in recent years.
We’ll also be treated to full page newspaper spreads after Cheltenham’s “Ladies Day” on March 11th. Racing takes a back seat to fashion as elaborate dresses and enormous (some might say ridiculous) hats take centre stage. However the day after, St. Patrick’s Day, has a completely different tone and becomes a raucous day long celebration of Ireland and the Irish!
The Cheltenham Festival is a peculiarly British event which soldiers on oblivious to changes in the social fibre or animal rights norms of the general population. Like it or loathe it, you’re bound to hear a lot more about Cheltenham as the big day approaches.
Another good festival away from Horse Racing is the Gŵyl Beaumaris Festival which is great way to spend a day in May. This year sees it celebrate its 30th anniversary.
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