By Stephen Dwyer
The Cheltenham festival, described annually by those in the racing world as “The Equine Olympics” celebrates its centenary this year. Starting on Tuesday next, 28 prestigious races will be run over four days and all involved will be hoping to share a total prize fund of €4 million (£3.38 million).
Cheltenham communications manager Andy Clifton expects an attendance of over 220,000 for the festival, which will contribute £50 million to the local economy. Over €500 million will be gambled in the course of four days, which is one of the highest valued betting events outside of the World Cup.
10,000 Irish racing fans will descend upon the track at Prestbury Park to witness first-hand the illustrious meeting. The very best of Irish, British and French horses will be pitted against each other, each race having an average value of £125,000.
The Irish invasion of Cheltenham began in earnest in the late 1940’s when Cottage Rake trained by the great Vincent O’ Brien, won three consecutive Gold Cups (1948,1949,1950) and Hatton’s Grace also won three Champion Hurdle’s in a row (1949,1950,1951). The Gloucestershire track has since become a mecca for the Irish, many of whom save year-round for the pilgrimage.
The gambling stories about Cheltenham are legendary, one Irishman won enough on Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle of 1998 to pay off his mortgage, then he proceeded to lose his house on Doran’s Pride in the Gold Cup a couple of days later. “It was only a small house anyway,” he is reputed to have said.
Irish and English alike know by now that “there is no such thing as a sure thing” in Cheltenham. Since 2006, fifteen horses were beaten there at odds of under 2/1. The track itself is carved out of cleeve hill and its undulating dips and rises do not suit every racehorse.
At maximum capacity the grandstand at Cheltenham will hold nearly 70,000 spectators; it will swell with anticipation at 1:30 on Tuesday as the starting tapes go up for the first race, the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle.
The world-famous Cheltenham roar marks the moment when the festival really begins but even that does not escape the betting frenzy. Paddy Power once rigged up a decibel recorder and offered 5/1 that the noise will be between 130-140 dB, same as that of a jet engine.
If you are lucky enough to be at the festival do not be surprised to see racegoers donning unusual headwear on the first day. The racecourse is giving away thousands of free bowler hats to honour those who started the meeting in 1911.
With the wait almost over, we will keep you updated with tips, advice and the inside track on all the runners and riders for the most popular horse race meeting in the world.
Out of the past 72 races run in Cheltenham, 24 of them were won by Irish horses. With St. Patrick’s Day taking place on day three of the festival, Irish eyes may well be smiling around the Cotswolds and beyond.