Above: 2017 Montpelier Hunt Races (Virginia). Photo by Betsy Kelley
BY MARTIN GREEN
Celebrities, royals and an array of superstar trainers will descend upon the west of England for one of the world’s most prestigious horse racing festivals next month. The Cheltenham Festival is a riot of noise, colour, glitz and glamour, and the main event is the Gold Cup on the final day. Last year Sizing John defied the odds to soar to a famous victory, and he will be back to defend his crown this time around. But this year’s field is deep and studded with magnificent runners, so it is sure to be a tense and exciting battle.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup began life as a jumps race in 1924, when Red Splash landed owner Major Humphrey Wyndham the princely sum of £685 ($960) by claiming victory. Jumps racing is an obscure sub-branch of horse racing in the global context, but it is hugely popular in the UK and Ireland. It is called National Hunt in the UK and it reigns supreme for half the year, before flat racing takes over during the summer and autumn months. The Cheltenham Festival is Britain’s biggest annual betting event, putting it ahead of the top soccer, cricket, rugby and tennis matches, and as you can see there is a huge range of betting options available on it.
By World War II, the Cheltenham Gold Cup had established itself as the most important race in the British calendar. It remains the most prestigious of all National Hunt events and it carries a prize purse of £625,000 ($877,000), making it the richest Grade 1 chase in the UK. It is dubbed the Blue Riband event of horse racing, and it catapults the winner to stardom. Over the years, some of the most famous horses of all-time have romped to the ultimate glory in the Gold Cup.
The most famous of the bunch was Arkle, who won it three times in a row between 1964 and 1966. The legendary chaser has the highest Timeform rating ever awarded and established himself as the dominant horse of his era. In 1966 he was the shortest-priced favourite in the race’s history and he lived up to the billing by securing an impressive 30-length victory. But there have been plenty more multiple winners that have captured the imagination. Golden Miller won all five races between 1932 and 1936, and Best Mate won three in a row between 2002 and 2004, while Kauto Star, Cottage Rake and Mill House have also gone down in history for their magnificent exploits in this race.
It takes place over 3 miles 2½ furlongs at the New Course at Cheltenham Racecourse, taking in 22 fences in a real battle of endurance that culminates with an uphill charge in front of the roaring crowd. It stands alongside the FA Cup Final, The Open, Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix as one of the key sporting events in the British calendar and millions around the world will also tune in to watch the drama unfold.
Last year trainer Jessica Harrington was vindicated in her decision to step Sizing John up in trip as he responded with a sensational Gold Cup victory. He had enjoyed modest success over 2½ miles but spent most of his career in Douvan’s shadow, and came into his own over the longer distance. He surged clear of Minella Rocco by 2½ lengths, with Native River third and favourite Djakadam back in fourth. Sizing John completed a trio of Gold Cup wins last year as he also took the Punchestown and Leopardstown renewals, and he will bid to defend his crown on Friday, March 16.
However, Sizing John has struggled to recapture his superb form this year, and the ever improving Might Bite is the frontrunner to win it, ahead of Native River and Sizing John. Road To Respect, who beat Sizing John earlier this year, is also in the mix, along with strong chasers like Our Duke, Total Recall, Definitely Red and Cue Card. It promises to be a fascinating battle between the leading steeplechasers from Britain, Ireland and further afield, and excitement will continue to mount as the big day approaches.
Martin Green is an experienced horse racing correspondent and has been attending the Cheltenham Festival for many years.