by ANNIE DALE In the words of the Cheltenham Festival official website: “The Festival epitomises and encompasses everything that is great about jump racing.” So, if you are a fan of hurdles or steeplechases, it really is an event not to be missed. Best of all, it’s not nearly as expensive as you might think.
The Festival takes place from Tuesday 13th to Friday 16th March, starting at 1.30 each day. Races take place every 40 minutes, making up a full seven-race card. Highlights include Grade One races such as the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle and, of course, the famous Cheltenham Gold Cup, the climax of both the meeting and the jump race season, on the final afternoon.
If you are coming to the Festival this year, it’s worth choosing your day carefully. Ladies’ Day on Wednesday is one of the highlights of the social calendar and is as much about fashion as it is about racing. St Patrick’s Thursday has a distinctly Irish flavour, from the many Irish horses and trainers to the popular Guinness tent. It might not be St Patrick’s Day until Saturday, but no-one is going to let that spoil the craic. But for any serious racing fan, Gold Cup day is the one to see, although it’s worth noting that you will pay more to get in on the final day.
You might expect Cheltenham to be an expensive day out, but it’s actually very affordable. Entry to the Best Mate enclosure is pre-bookable online for just £40 on the first three days and £55 on Gold Cup Day, and if you pre-book your parking, too, you can park all day for just £8. Just remember to leave yourself plenty of time to get to the course, park and find your way in. With 60,000 people attending every day, as well as enhanced security checks (which are now sadly essential for any major event), there are bound to be queues.
And you don’t have to dress up too much for Cheltenham Festival, either, so you can forget the top hat and tails. Because organisers appreciate how cold it can still be in mid-March, warm, casual country clothing is generally the order of the day, with tweeds, browns and greens blending in nicely with the crowds.
While you can’t cut your costs by packing a picnic or bringing your own drinks, there are plenty of places to eat and drink on a budget, from hot dogs to hog roasts. There will be a huge choice of restaurants, from the cheap and cheerful to the chic and exclusive. But then, you never know: pick the right horse from the Cheltenham Festival odds and you might just be able to upgrade from one to the other.
You could invest in a guide to Cheltenham Festival form, but you generally won’t go wrong backing Ruby Walsh or Willie Mullins. Walsh was top jockey again last year, making it 11 out of the last 14 festivals that he has triumphed at, despite not having a winner at all in the first two days. Meanwhile, Mullins was equal on winners with Gordon Elliott, only losing top trainer on second places. Even so, he has been top trainer five out of the last seven years, so he is a pretty reliable man to follow.
With 28 top class races, an amazing atmosphere and a real ‘festival spirit’, Cheltenham is not to be missed, especially when it is so accessible and affordable for the ordinary racing fan.