To anyone connected, even loosely, with National Hunt racing, the Cheltenham Festival requires little introduction. The four-day extravaganza is staged annually, in March, at Cheltenham Racecourse, a.k.a. Prestbury Park, in Gloucestershire and is, undoubtedly, the most prestigious National Hunt event of the year. During the four days, most of the best National Hunt horses, from both sides of the Irish Sea, do battle for championship honours, not to mention over £4.5 million in prize money.
However, the Cheltenham Festival is not just a major horse racing occasion; it is, in fact, a British sporting institution and, arguably, the most famous Anglo-Irish sporting occasion of the year, attracting over 260,000 spectators – an average of over 60,000 a day – including 10,000 itinerant Irish racing fans. The Cheltenham Festival features a total of 28 races staged over four days, dubbed Champion Day, Ladies’ Day, St. Patrick’s Thursday – regardless of the actual date on which the Thursday falls – and Gold Cup Day.
The first two days, which feature the first two ‘championship’ races, the Champion Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase, respectively, are staged on the Old Course, while the last two, which feature the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, respectively, are staged on the New Course. Both courses are left-handed, undulating and testing in character, but the Old Course has a slightly shorter run-in and places emphasis on stamina than speed. The Cross Country Course, laid out in the centre of the two conventional courses, is used only for the running of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, currently scheduled for Ladies’ Day.
Aside from the four championship races, The Festival™ programme – the trademark is owned by Jockey Club Racecourses, which runs Cheltenham Racecourse – also includes nine more of the most prestigious type of race, known as Grade 1, in which the weight carried by each horse is determined by its age and sex, rather than its previous performances on the racecourse. These races are, in chronological order, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle Challenge Trophy, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, the RSA Chase, the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, the Ryanair Chase, the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Triumph Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.