HORSE racing events don’t get much bigger than the Cheltenham Festival that starts on Tuesday – four days of top quality National Hunt racing featuring some of the best jockeys, horses and trainers in the world.
The festival, which is held annually in England, is a real highlight of the British racing calendar. It draws huge audiences, both at the course and on television. Racing enthusiasts come from all over to visit Cheltenham Racecourse during the festival, but it is particularly popular with fans from England and Ireland.
Here are ten reasons to watch and bet on races at the great festival this week:
THE BATTLE OF THE CHAMPIONS
The opportunity to see the two most recent winners of the Unibet Champion Hurdle square up on the opening day of the meeting ought not to be missed. So impressive in success 12 month ago, Buveur D’Air looks to have lost none of his zip judged on this season’s evidence. But can Willie Mullins coax 2016 winner Faugheen back to his sparkling best? He would not be the first to raise his game returned to the scene of his greatest triumph.
THE POWER OF YORKSHIRE
Things have been relatively quiet for northern raiders at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years, but Yorkshire-trained raiders will bid to reverse those fortunes next week with Sam Spinner, a major contender in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle and the Brian Ellison-trained Definitly Red, a fascinating contender for the Timico Gold Cup.
TWO YOUNG TALENTS
At just 25, Amy Murphy is the youngest trainer in Britain, but she has more than just that as a claim to fame with the emergence of Kalashnikov as a high-class hurdler this season. He was an impressive winner in Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle last time and although his trainer believes he will be even more effective on a quicker surface, his proven ability to handle testing conditions could turn out to be a useful asset in the meeting’s opening contest, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
BATTLE OF THE FRONTRUNNERS IN THE ARKLE
This year’s Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase promises to be even more thrilling than usual with market-leaders Footpad and Saint Calvados both seemingly at their most effective from dominating their races from the front. Both have looked disarmingly accurate at their fences so far this season, and although Footpad’s hurdling form and experience could give him an edge, the race should be a thrilling head-to-head between two frontrunners.
A VERY GOOD CAUSE
Cause Of Causes returns to his happiest hunting ground in a bid to land his fourth consecutive Success at the meeting. He has shown impressive adaptability throughout his career and lines up in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase in the search of back-to-back successes in the race for Gordon Elliott. “If he could go back and win there for a fourth time, that would mean more than any winner I could have [over the week],” Elliott said recently. “He loves it when the sun comes out at this time of year and he seems to love Cheltenham.”
SAMCRO COULD BE A SUPERSTAR
Gordon Elliott is less keen to talk about Samcro’s prospects of success at the Festival, but the six-year-old has been a name on the lips of Jumps racing’s fans all season long after a series of hugely-impressive performances. Sent off at odds-on for all three of his appearances over hurdles, he has justified the strong market support on each occasion, most recently when cruising all over his rivals at Leopardstown last month.
MORE TIME FOR FORM STUDY
Finally, the authorities have realised that leaving confusion over final targets at the meeting until the last minute is a turn-off for punters and enforced a new 48-hour final declaration stage for every race at the Cheltenham Festival. For fans of Jumps racing that means there’s even more time to spend doing your research ahead of an event that turns everyone into an expert.
BRYONY BIDDING TO MAKE HER MARK
The rise of Bryony Frost as a leading Jumps jockey has been one of the stories of the season so far and the 22-year-old gets the chance to shine again when she partners Black Corton for Paul Nicholls in the RSA Chase. She has struck up a splendid association with the novice this season, steering him to a first Grade One success in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton over Christmas, and her swashbuckling style clearly brings out the best in him. “‘Blackie’ is just a dude,” she says. “He’s got big ears and a funny sort of waddle and you might not look twice at him, but I wouldn’t swap him for anything.”
MIGHT BITE BACK FOR MORE
After his unforgettable performance in the RSA Chase 12 months ago, Might Bite returns to Cheltenham in search of steeplechasing’s true crown in the Timico Gold Cup. Two out it looked as if Might Bite would saunter to a first Festival success last year, but after scrambling over the final fence, he started to hang across the track and had reached a virtual standstill by the time stablemate Whisper drew alongside. Might Bite found renewed momentum and rallied to get back up in a dramatic finish, but Nicky Henderson will be hoping for something much less dramatic this time. It would certainly be no surprise to see Nico De Boinville holding his characterful mount up in order to deliver a much later challenge.
THE BEST HORSE YOU’LL SEE ALL WEEK?
Twelve runs over jumps. Twelve victories. It’s hard to quite a get a handle on how good Altior might be, because nothing has as yet managed to really give him a race over fences. This season has not gone to plan with a breathing issue requiring surgery in the autumn, but he returned with a devastatingly smart performance at Newbury last month and trainer Henderson is purring about his prospects of maintaining that impressive three-year unbeaten sequence. Could Willie Mullins nurse the increasingly-fragile Douvan back to the track in time for a clash with Altior that some have been looking forward to for years?