In March, the beautiful Cotswolds town of Cheltenham hosts the climax of the National Hunt Season – The Cheltenham Festival. Twenty races, one hundred and twenty thousand people and prize money of over one million pounds helps makes this the greatest jump race meeting in the world. Mention the word Cheltenham to a racing enthusiast and it will evoke many memories of festivals past. Cottage Rake in the fifties. The era of Arkle and Mill House in the sixties. Dawn Run winning the Gold Cup in 1986 and Desert Orchid ploughing through the bottomless ground in 1989. More recently, Best Mate emulating Arkles achievements in winning three consecutive Gold Cups.
Last year, the Irish celebrated their best ever festival, ending with a total of nine winners. This included three of the four championship races with Hardy Eustace adding the 2005 Champion Hurdle to his 2004 win, Moscow Flyer taking the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the imperious Kicking King carrying all before him in winning the Gold Cup. The only championship claimed by the English contingent was the World (formally Stayers) Hurdle by Ingles Drever. However, this year’s festival will be as much remembered for the horses that are not competing as much as for the races themselves. The double King George winner and Gold Cup holder Kicking King is out for the rest of the season with a tendon injury and the death of three time Gold Cup winner Best Mate in November cast a sizable shadow over the whole season. This, coupled with inconsistent form from the other protagonists, has resulted in a wide open race and judges labelling it a poor renewal. However this should allow other horses such as War of Attrition, Kingscliffe and the perennial underachiever, Beef or Salmon, to stake their Gold Cup claims. Other notable absentees from the major races include Harchibald and the tragic Lingo from the Champion Hurdle, Well Chief and Azertioup from the Champion Chase and Ingles Drever from the World Hurdle. This hasn’t dampened spirits and dulled appetites however. Tickets are selling rapidly and organisers predict record aggregate crowds over the four days. To experience the roar as the tape goes up for the first race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, is something that I will never forget. The anticipation that this year’s festival will be the best yet. The excitement of picking a winner, of waiting in line to collect your winnings. Of mixing with the Irish who drink the place dry. For those four days in March, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be. I’ve got my ticket, have you?
By Christopher Lowther
deputy sports editor