For most of the year Cheltenham is a sleepy spa town in Gloucestershire; about 100 miles West of London, close to the Welsh border. However for 4 days in March it becomes the centre of the racing world; as the racecourse hosts the Cheltenham Festival – one of the oldest and most prestigious race meets in the world.
The Festival is a wonder to behold; journalists rub shoulders with aristocrats in the grandstand, trainers make their final preparations and jockeys await their big moments anxiously. In the midst of all this bookies are having a frantic week both at the track and online, where they can expect to take as much as £600m in bets!
Over 4 days more than 250,000 spectators will flock to the grandstand to watch the action. The atmosphere at race meets is always something special but, at Cheltenham, this reaches new levels. As the tape is cut for the first race (The Supreme Novices Hurdle) the noise will reach a spectacular level known as the “Cheltenham Roar”.
The Cheltenham Festival has a strong association with Ireland partly due to the fact it is timed to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day. On that day a large section of the crowd will be from the Emerald Isle; Guinness will be drunk a plenty and affairs may become even more boisterous than usual!
Ladies Day, this year held on the second day of racing (Wednesday 11th) is altogether a more genteel affair, when all eyes will be on the beautiful dresses and elaborate hats worn by ladies. Gentlemen are encouraged to follow suit of course, though they won’t come close to matching the style or finery!
Of course, during all this, Cheltenham is also giving home to dozens of horses that will compete that day. Sheltered well out of the way of the noise and excitement for as long as possible these flighty thoroughbreds will be led around the Parade Ring before they race. This represents an opportunity for the crowd to gauge an animal’s look and temperament – bright eyes, a shiny coat and muscle tone are all pointers of a horse in prime condition.
Sadly racing is still dangerous for jockeys and horses; several of the latter will be put down each year. Owners face the prospect of losing a beloved, and very expensive, animal and so must consider the decision to enter carefully.
For racehorse owners the primary financial reward can often come after a horse’s career has ended – when they are put out to stud. A respectable showing at Cheltenham can be the difference between ignominious retirement and a lucrative second career. Frankel the last “super steed” to win widespread fame, surpassed his entire career earnings in a year of going to stud at £125,000 a go! In the run up to this year’s festival, formerly highly rated Tell Us More has already damaged his star with poor showings, but Silviniaco Conti shows every sign of adding a stunning end of career triumph to his roster by winning the Gold Cup.
Cheltenham is a simply unforgettable event which is well worth experiencing. Tickets start from as little as £22 and there are convenient rail links from London. All tickets are likely to be sold well in advance so, if you’re interested, it’s worth starting to plan now!