What Makes the Cheltenham Festival So Special?

By Staff Reporter - 16 March 2021

  • Photo by Jeff Griffith on Unsplash

    Photo by Jeff Griffith on Unsplash

The UK has some of the best horse racing events in the world, including the legendary Grand National, the prestigious Royal Ascot, and the historic Epsom Derby. Here in Swindon, we’re lucky to have one of the most important events on the horse racing calendar right on our doorstep, the Cheltenham Festival.

  • Photo by Chris Kendall on Unsplash

    Photo by Chris Kendall on Unsplash

Taking place each March, tens of thousands of British and Irish people flock to the Gloucestershire town to enjoy four days of exciting jump racing. Being so close, many of these people are from Swindon and the surrounding Wiltshire towns. Getting there is easy, with special buses and trains put on during the festival. Most people in attendance will be wagering on the racing, with the average being £200 per person per day.

Across the UK, there are dozens of meetings taking place every week, all giving punters the opportunity to bet on horse racing. But the Cheltenham Festival stands out as a highlight of the National Hunt calendar. Why is that?

Season Opener

Taking place in early Spring, the Cheltenham Festival is the first major meeting on the National Hunt calendar. It’s the first time in months that people have been able to gather together to enjoy their passion for equine sports, spend time with friends, and have a flutter.

This helps to create an electric atmosphere that isn’t present at other events. Of course, other major meetings like Royal Ascot and the Grand National have their own unique pageantry and atmosphere, but Cheltenham stands out.

In fact, the crowds at the Cheltenham Festival have been known to cheer so loudly that the phrase “Cheltenham roar” was coined to describe it.

St Patrick’s Day

The Cheltenham Festival typically coincides with St Patrick’s Day. This sees many Irish horse racing fans make the journey across the Irish Sea to jointly celebrate their Patron Saint and their love of the sport.

The organisers usually acknowledge this, with day three of the Cheltenham Festival traditionally known as “St Patrick’s Thursday”, even if the 17th March falls on a different day.

As a result, the Thursday usually sees many Irish racegoers head to Cheltenham Racecourse, with many choosing to dress up in green. Others like to go even further, hearing green top hats, fake beards, and four-leaf clovers.

The racecourse also provides Irish-themed entertainment, including traditional Irish music and themed enclosures.

Three Tracks

Most racecourses in the UK have one track. They may have some variants, such as the ability to bypass fences, but this makes little difference to the distance and terrain. In other countries, particularly the US and some Middle-Eastern nations, racecourses may have an inner and outer circuit, with one being turf and the other dirt.

However, Cheltenham is different. It has three separate courses, the main two being referred to as the “old” and “new” layouts. They run side-by-side, but the clever design means that they are not just the same track with a wider or tighter turning radius.

The new circuit starts on the inside of the other, but the two cross over near the far end.

The old and new courses are each used for two of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, meaning there is a lot of variety to keep racegoers engaged throughout.

They both also have hurdles and chase layouts to cater for different types of races. Both types of competition are held during the Cheltenham Festival, adding even more variety over the four days.

The old course is better suited to fast horses, while the new layout tends to favour horses with a bigger stamina. This makes picking winners more of a challenge for bettors and pundits.

A third circuit, known as the Cross Country Course is used for one race during the Festival and has a figure-of-eight layout, adding even more variety to the spectacle.

An Action-Packed Schedule

Another thing that makes the Cheltenham Festival so popular is the fact that so many races take place on each day. With five new ones added in 2005, the formerly three-day event was extended to the now-four-day format.

Even more have been added in recent years, so each day now has seven races, making 28 in total. Each day has at least one championship race, the most prestigious being the Gold Cup that takes place on the final day of the festival.

It also hosts the Foxhunters’ race, which is one of the biggest Hunter Chases on the calendar.

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