It is the jewel in the crown of the jumps season. From Tuesday March 12th to Friday March 15th, the most elite horses, trainers and jockeys in the world of equine talent converge upon the Cotswolds for the Cheltenham Festival. Worth over £50 million to the local economy, the Festival attracts almost a quarter of a million visitors each year.
To the UK and Irish betting industries, the Cheltenham Festival fundamentally affects the annual profits of bookmakers on both sides of the Irish sea. Ten years ago, when favourites won half of the races at the meeting, several major bookmaking firms reported lower than expected profits for the year, attributed in no small part to “unfavourable results” at Cheltenham.
Such is the scale of the betting frenzy that the Festival also accounts for around 10 per cent of the Tote’s annual on-course pool betting turnover. On average at least £1 million changes hands on every race in the betting ring at the racecourse, with over 250 bookmakers in attendance for each day of the four day meeting. Attracting the owners and connections, aside from the prestige of having a Cheltenham winner, is the extraordinary prize money. With a total prize fund of over £3.8 million, the average race is worth in excess of £141,000.
Four championship races form the centrepiece for each of the days at the Festival and the competition for each of the events is especially strong this year. The Stan James Champion Hurdle includes no less than four previous winners in Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly, Binocular and Punjabi. The prize fund for the race this year has never been higher, at £400,000 it has been increased by £30,000 from the 2012 level.
At the head of the market is the 2010 winner Hurricane Fly. Available generally at 3/1 Hurricane Fly recently equalled Istabraq’s record of fourteen Grade 1 wins over hurdles. There is no doubt that Hurricane Fly is the best hurdler since Istabraq, he boasts a better winning record, has never fallen and Ruby Walsh is on record as saying the ‘Fly has so much speed he could win a Group 1 on the flat if he wanted to.
No horse has won back the Festival Champion Hurdle since Comedy of Errors in 1975, but if there is one who can defy that statistic, it is Hurricane Fly. He cast aside the “Montjeu” curse in 2011, where no progeny of Montjeu had won at the Festival and he has a very realistic chance of regaining his title this year. Many punters will be a lot happier taking 3/1 for him now than the 4/7 last year when he was not a sound horse, coughing a week before the race and was not right on the day when beaten into third. It is also worth noting that his trainer Willie Mullins has either the favourite or second favourite in 14 of the 27 races at the Cheltenham Festival. This is a true reflection on the strength in depth at Closutton and Hurricane Fly is quite happy to lead the charge, as he does at home on the gallops. Hurricane Fly is nine now and there have only been three winners over the age of eight for the last 58 years, he faces a tough task yes, but not an impossible one.
On Ladies Day, the feature race is the Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase. With £350,000 on offer, is seems a penalty kick for Sprinter Sacre. Beaten only twice in his thirteen races, Sprinter Sacre is an astonishing horse. He remains unbeaten over fences and has been supported from 11/10 into 2/5 for the race. He was a seven length winner of the Arkle Chase at last year’s festival where his performance was simply described by Sporting Life as “awesome”. Progressing greatly in his career as a second-season chaser, Sprinter Sacre has subsequently won three Grade 1 races since last year’s Festival by a combined distance of 42 lengths. It is very difficult to identify chinks in his armour, his jumping is impeccable and he has a devastating turn of foot. The only conceivable cause for concern is that the horse has yet to make a serious mistake over fences and does he have the ability to recover from a jumping error. In truth he probably does and Sprinter Sacre should become the fifth winning favourite in the Champion Chase in the last ten years.
When Paul Nicholls broke the news last December that Big Buck’s sustained a leg injury and would be out for the season, it was greeted with dismay by the racing public. The only horse to win four successive Ladbrokes World hurdle titles at Cheltenham, Big Buck’s had won eighteen races in a row before his injury. Connections are hopeful that the horse will return to training and his defection from this year’s World Hurdle means that it is the most open renewal of the race in some years. Nicky Henderson’s Oscar Whiskey finished fifth to Big Buck’s last year and recently ran Reve De Sivola to a neck in the Cleeve Hurdle over three miles. Oscar Whiskey does have plenty of class, he was third in a Champion Hurdle, won the Welsh Champion Hurdle and has won around Cheltenham four times. After the Cleeve Hurdle, Rory Jiwani of Stan James said, "Nick Williams' charge is definitely on an upward curve and he just saw off Oscar Whisky with the pair well clear. We've cut Reve de Sivola from 6/1 to 4/1 favourite for the World Hurdle”. Where Reve de Sivola is a proven stayer, with just 6 wins from 23 starts, he does not have the class of Oscar Whisky. Should Nicky Henderson’s 8yo stay the trip and get his ground, he would be a popular winner.
On the last day of the Festival, the Blue Riband of jump racing takes centre stage. With £550,000 on offer, the most valuable prize of the Festival is the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. There was over £50 million staked on the 2012 renewal of the Gold Cup alone which took the turnover for the week above £300 million. Hennessy Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth is the outright 3/1 favourite, he won the 2012 RSA chase and has never been beaten at Cheltenham from his four starts. His trainer Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer of all time at The Festival with 46 victories and is very keen on the chances of Bobs Worth. The 2011 winner and last year’s third, Long Run is 7/1 for the race and Willie Mullins saddles Sir Des Champs who is 9/2 and has won both the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle and the Jewson Novices' Chase at Cheltenham. The race appears to be between the main market protagonists although Silviniaco Conti for Paul Nicholls has an each way chance if handling the extended trip. Interestingly a new Cheltenham Gold Cup is minted each year. There is 10 ounces of gold in the trophy, which makes it worth around £11,000 and it will find a new home in 2013.
In wrapping it all up I recall attending the Festival some years ago I met an elderly gentleman who said something very fitting; “there are four days in a year, the rest aren’t Cheltenham.”
Never a truer word was spoken.