We are now less than a month away from the Cheltenham Festival 2019 and it promises to be another exhilarating meeting. This is the most important event in the National Hunt season and it encapsulates all the most prestigious races of the year, including the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the Champion Chase. Punters are eagerly counting down the days and studying the form guides in advance of the four-day festival, and here is what we know so far:
The 2019 festival begins at 1.30 pm on Tuesday, 12 March, when the Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle goes off. There are seven races on the opening day and four of them are Grade 1: The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle, the Champion Hurdle and the Mares’ Hurdle. The Champion Hurdle is the showpiece event that day and the most prestigious hurdling event in the National Hunt Calendar.
Day two is Ladies Day and the Queen Mother Champion Chase is the standout event, while the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle, the RSA Chase and the Champion Bumper are also Grade 1 contests.
Next up is St. Patrick’s Thursday, which sees a sea of green flood the famous racecourse, and the Stayers’ Hurdle is the biggest race that day. It culminates on the Friday with the Gold Cup, the most important race of the year. In total there are 28 races and 14 of them are Grade 1. The final race of the four-day extravaganza takes place at 5.30pm on 15th March. ITV will broadcast the festival, while you can find regular insights at this sports spread betting blog.
Races Moved Around
On the opening day, the final two races have been swapped, so that the Listed Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase becomes the sixth race and the day ends with the Grade 2 National Hunt Chase. The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Steeple Chase Challenge Cup is now no longer the final race of the festival. It has been moved to a slot 40 minutes earlier, and Cheltenham will now conclude with the £70,000 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
The prize money for this year’s Cheltenham Festival will be virtually identical to what was on offer in 2018. Sixteen racecourses across Britain have seen prize money slashed as a result of the government’s decision to impose a £2 maximum limit per spin on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. That has made bookmakers less profitable and Arene Racing Company responded by cutting its contribution to prize money by £3 million, affecting 3,406 races. However, Cheltenham is not one of the courses affected. The organisers made a big announcement ahead of the 2018 festival as they revealed that prize money would shoot up by 7% to £4.6 million. There has been no such announcement this time around, so the prize money will stay the same, but given the current climate that is actually a decent result. The Cheltenham Gold Cup has prize money of £625,000, the Champion Hurdle boasts £450,000, the Champion Chase prize purse stands at £400,000, the Stayers’ Hurdle is at £325,000 and the Ryanair Chase is £350,000. It means the Gold Cup is still the richest Grade 1 race in Britain by a considerable distance, and the prestige associated with winning these contests is huge.
Penultimate Fence Change
Course officials have decided to move the second from last fence for this year’s festival in a bid to improve equine welfare. The penultimate fence almost immediately followed the final bend on races at the Old Course and it has always had one of the highest faller rates at the track. It is an unusual step, but a welcome one among campaigners. It should lead to fewer fallers at this year’s festival, and that in turn could well mean fewer frustrated punters.
Returning Champions and Exciting Contenders
All the big name horses that won last year will be back to defend their crowns. That means Native River will go for Gold Cup glory once again, taking on leading lights such as Presenting Percy and King George VI Chase champion Clan Des Obeaux. Nicky Henderson’s star duo, Buveur D’Air and Altior, are favourites to reclaim the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase respectively, while Penhill will take on the highly-rated Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Look out for runners saddled by Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, as these two Irish maestros will battle it out for the honour of being named the leading trainer at the festival. Elliott will bring back the likes of Samcro and Tiger Roll, both festival winners in 2018, while big things are expected of Apples Jade this time around. Mullins’ Annamix is generating a lot of buzz, while Footpad, Laurina, Faugheen and Un De Sceaux are likely to be unleashed for another crack at glory. Le Richebourg, Ok Corral, Santini, Defi Du Seuil, Cyrname, Siruh Du Lac, Honeysuckle and Sir Erec are among the other vaunted runners targeting Cheltenham and it is shaping up to be a classic.