Cheltenham Festival, which falls this year on March 10th - 13th, is an annual celebration of this country’s equine culture. Alongside the Grand National at Aintree it stands as the premier event in the National Hunt racing calendar - attracting only the finest racers to compete for some of the richest purses within the sport.
During the Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse at Prestbury Park will be overrun by trainers, owners and jockeys all frantically preparing for their big moments - which may only last a few minutes. Over the 4 day event there will be no less than 27 races each of which will bring lashings of drama to the final second.
For jockeys the run up to Cheltenham is an exciting and challenging time. The “big names” - like Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh and Frankie Dettori will all have their pick of mounts for the big events and so use the run up to gauge ability and form. Everything learned during these lower key races will be stored and analysed before Cheltenham.
Owners, too, have some tough emotional and financial decisions to make. The large fields and challenging nature of the Cheltenham courses has cost several mounts their lives in recent years. Owners must weigh up the risk to their horses and riders against the chance of winning and also consider that a healthy, retired horse may be worth more at stud than on the course. Against all this weighs the considerable prestige of winning any Cheltenham event, let alone the Gold Cup which is possibly racing’s most sought after prize.
But it isn’t just those “in the business” that sweat the run up to Cheltenham Festival. Even now an operation of hundreds is preparing the track and readying the grandstand. During The Festival itself a huge operation involving thousands of caterers, security guards, marshals and plenty more will come together to give the 80,000 daily spectators a seamless experience. If the temperature dips below freezing in the run up (not unlikely, given this country’s climate) every inch of Cheltenham’s track will be covered in sheeting to mitigate damaging frosts that can cause delays and cancellations.
Bookmakers too will be busy studying every race run by Cheltenham contenders to adjust their prices on the thousands of markets they’ll be offering. As much as £600m will be wagered on Cheltenham and even fractional mistakes can take millions from the bottom line.
With just weeks to go until March 10th and another incredible installment of The Cheltenham Show the excitement is ramping up in all quarters. Nowhere else in the world will you such pivotal moments occur in such quickfire succession - the tiniest element the difference between glory and ignominy!