The Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us. Four days of action, 28 races and what many are predicting to be a record attendance is sure to make the 2019 rendition of National Hunt’s ‘Holy Grail’ a show to remember.
Of course there has been many changes to this celebration of ‘all things jumps racing’ since 2001, the year the Foot & Mouth crisis closed down all racing and led to the abandonment of the Festival. One of the most notable changes has been the introduction of a cross country course and the annual Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase which was first run in 2005.
This quirky contest was won by Tiger Roll last year, the Gordon Elliott trained horse who went on to claim the 2018 Grand National. Elliott also used this race as a Grand National stepping stone for Silver Birch, the horse that put him on the map by winning the 2007 Grand National.
Returning to Cheltenham, 2005 was also the year the Festival was extended to four days and five new races were introduced to proceedings. Another four races have been added since giving us a sum total of 28 contests, precisely 7 per day. The opening race is 1.30pm every day, the last 5.30pm. The four feature races are all scheduled to start at 3.30pm.
But the spirit of competition has truly come alive during the past decade as Irish-trained horses have enjoyed incredible success. It is hard to believe Irish horses won just three races at the 2000 Festival and four in 2004. 2009 and 2010 saw a massive upturn in their fortunes with nine and ten winners but 2012 was a catastrophe with that number back down to ten.
This decade has been nothing short of remarkable though. Irish runners won 13 races in 2011 and 14 in both 2013 and 2016. That figure was up to 19 in 2017 and there were 17 Irish trained winners at last year’s Festival. This battle has become a rivalry and that rivalry has been given team captains (Irish snooker player Ken Doherty and English cricketer Phil Tufnell in 2018) and a title, the Prestbury Cup.
The Prestbury Cup has become a keen betting medium - one of countless things you can now bet on at the Cheltenham Festival while not actually placing wages on individual horses. You can claim these Cheltenham betting offers today on everything from the leading jockey - which has not been a British-based rider since Robert Thornton in 2007 - to the leading trainer.
In 2019 before the tapes have gone up on a single race, it is top-priced 6/4 that Gordon Elliott will be the top trainer for a third consecutive season.
Gigginstown House Stud, which has its horses trained exclusively in Ireland and is owned by Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary won the inaugural ‘Leading Festival Owner’ award at the renowned National Hunt festival in 2017. His colours were carried to victory on four winners and last year he kept the trophy thanks to seven horses carrying his burgundy and white colours. But he is a 6/4 shot to take the crown for a third year with JP McManus, who owns the favourite in seven of the Festival’s 28 races, rated an 8/15 chance.
Whoever takes home the Festival bragging rights National Hunt horse racing is set to be the winner with this spectacle avoiding the spectre of equine flu and predicted to attract over three million domestic viewers on ITV and Racing TV. That’s in addition to global simulcasting and the thousands that will watch the action online via their mobile device or PC.