Next week Cheltenham plays host to one of the most important sporting events in Britain: The Cheltenham Festival. “It’s the Olympics of the racing world,” says Harry Skelton, son of Olympic gold medal-winning show jumper, Nick Skelton.
Alongside the Grand National meeting at Aintree, The Cheltenham Festival is the race fixture that every racehorse trainer, owner and jockey wants to win. It also attracts the very elite of National Hunt racing. It is an event that embodies everything that is great about racing - the thrill of the chase and the extraordinary bravery and fight displayed by great horses and jockeys. Then there’s the ambience and buzz. If you don’t feel your heart lift when you hear the sound of famous Cheltenham Roar from the crowd, then you’re not human.
The festival is about big betting too. Around £600 million is expected to change hands during the 28 Cheltenham Festival races. It unites people from all walks of life who come for sport, betting and, of course, the social scene. It also has an extremely strong Irish attendance, to the extent that Ryanair put on an extra 30 flights on the Dublin to Birmingham route during the four-day festival. Guinness becomes the most popular drink sold too, with reportedly around 265,000 pints of Guinness bought at the festival alone.
As well as punters from the Emerald Isle, there’s a strong contingent of Irish horses, trainers and jockeys who will be venturing over next week. So if you’re thinking of taking a punt, here’s a rundown of some of the best trainers, jockeys and horses each side of the Irish Sea.
Team GB would have to include Paul Nicholls. He remains one of the most successful National Hunt trainers in the sport - Champion trainer 10 times with 40 festival winners and four Gold Cup winners. This year he has over 20 runners at the Festival with Politologue in the JLT Chase as one of his best chances and Aperge D’Alene in the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase, partly-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Then there’s Colin Tizzard, a near-neighbour of Nicholls from Somerset. Tizzard’s best horse Thistlecrack is out with injury but he has two great hopes in the Gold Cup with Cue Card and Native River.
Also on Team GB is the Festival’s most successful trainer, Nicky Henderson. This year he has good chance with Altoir in the Arkle. With three exciting entries in the Champion Hurdle (Brain Power, Buveur D’Airand and My Tent or Yours) you would not be foolish to put your money on a Henderson horse.
On the Irish team Willie Mullins has never had a regretful trip to Cheltenham. He’ll be aiming to put recent bad luck behind him - after losing a number of stable stars to injury and freak accidents (Vatour, Faugheen, Annie Power and Min). He has around 40 runners at Cheltenham including Douvan who has won 14 of his 15 races and Djakadam in the Gold Cup.
One of Mullins biggest rivals is the Irish trainer of the moment - Gordon Elliott who is currently leading the Irish trainers’ championship by more than 350,000 euros over Mullins. As a trainer he won the Grand National at the tender age of 29 with Silver Birch and the Gold Cup with Don Cossack last year. His impressive line-up of horses includes Outlander in the Gold Cup and Death Duty in the Novices’ Hurdle.
Whoever you decide to back, good luck to all horses, jockeys, connections and punters!
Tickets are still available for the Cheltenham Festival which runs from 14th-17th March. Find out more here.