Cheltenham Festival 2016 has come to town
- Credit: PA WIRE
It’s here at last - the greatest National Hunt meeting of the year will bring joy and tears to hundreds of thousands of racegoers this week
As the tapes rise, there’s a tremendous roar and they are off. After a 12 month wait and endless weeks of preparation, Cheltenham Festival, the most prestigious fixture of the whole National Hunt season is here. Hopes will be raised, dreams will be realised, hearts will be broken, tears will be shed and of course millions of money will be won - and lost. But it is this rollercoaster of emotions, shared by jockey, owner, trainer and spectator alike that makes Prestbury Park such a special place to be. Within four days - Tuesday, March 15 until Friday, March 18 - reputations and fortunes will be made and lost. But as those who know this place well, the atmosphere is like no other. The spirit of celebration is high. One only has to witness the extraordinary quantities of Guinness and Champagne that are consumed to see that.
This year’s Festival is particularly special with the brand new purpose built five storey Grandstand in place. When she officially opened the facility in November, which is named after here, HRH Princess Anne, explained how touched and privileged she was that it was named after her.
“You were kind enough to let me enjoy National Hunt Racing actually on the course and alongside top professionals, and that has been a real privilege. I have had my greatest fun and fears in doing that,” she said, talking about her experiences when riding at Cheltenham as an amateur jockey.
She told the crowds she was hugely impressed by The Princess Royal Stand which offered greater viewing perspectives and she hoped all those involved in racing would take pride in what Cheltenham had achieved.
“We have been lucky to see so much, not just first class racing but quite exceptional racing which is supported by owners, trainers, from spectators and from those who make sure this as a Cheltenham Racecourse runs.”
Exceptional racing and the stories behind the individual horses and owners are what this prestigious four day event is all about. And it all kicks off with the Cheltenham Roar on Tuesday, March 15th with Champion Day, the second best attended day, drawing crowds of 65,000.
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“Tuesday has a real buzz about it because it is the first day and there is always the roar. It is something that has grown in time. Everybody gets so excited when the tapes go up. The crowds, by tradition, give a good old cheer that has grown and grown. The roar has become really special to Cheltenham - it’s a real “let’s go and take it on,” explains Sophia Dale, Communications Manager for The Jockey Club.
Last year the Tuesday race day was dominated by one Irish trainer, Willie Mullins who was determined to win four of the seven races held on that day. Having won three of his races, all eyes were on a horse called Annie Power to see if she could win him the 4th.
“She was in line for it, but fell at the last jump and there was a very audible gasp from the crowd, but what was funny was that Willie had another horse in that race, Glen Melody, who went on and won it. It was an amazing story to start The Festival with,” recalls Sophia.
With hundreds of horses arriving from Ireland alone, and others coming from miles around, it means Prestbury Park’s stables - all 299 - are full for the week. Due to the position of the stables in the grounds, it means spectators who have just watched their favourites run, can get a glimpse of them as they load onto the horseboxes to go back home afterwards.
Champion Day kicks off the event, followed by Ladies Day on Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day on Thursday and Gold Cup Day on the Friday. In all there are 28 races to watch, with seven being held each day.
So ladies what is in store for the Wednesday? For a number of years Cheltenham has had it’s own Ladies day, but last year - thanks to social media - saw the introduction of the #ColourMeMarch Best Dressed Lady. Punters are encouraged to take a selfie at the racecourse and put it on social media #ColourMeMarch and the lady who gets the most votes, gets the prize. But of course the real action is on the track and the highlight for the Wednesday is the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase won last year by Dodging Bullets from the Paul Nicholls yard.
“I love that race because you see horses racing at their fastest. They are racing two miles, the minimum for a jump race and to see them soaring over the big fences at up to 30-40 MPH is quite something. They go at some pace!” admits Sophia.
The race itself is named after the late Queen Mother who was a huge Cheltenham supporter. Although Cheltenham doesn’t feature in the official engagement’s diary of HRH The Queen, she has been known to come along on occasion. However there is always a Royal presence with HRH Princess Anne, Zara Phillips and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall often attending.
It’s a special day for the Irish fans on Thursday, St Patrick’s Day and in their honour, The Dublin Legends - formally The Dubliners - will be playing in the Guinness Village before the first race at 1.30pm. In this village, it’s estimated over 236,000 pints of the black stuff will be consumed, over the four days, either in celebration or commiseration!
As well as the two big races, the World Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase, there is a new race this year for the Thursday with The Trull House Stud Mares Novice Hurdle.
And to end The Festival, the most attended event - Friday, Gold Cup day - attracts almost 69,000 visitors. Nearly 200 years ago in July 1819, the first horse race known as the Cheltenham Gold Cup took place on Cleeve Hill. The winner, Spectre won 100 guineas for his owner. This year’s winner of the Gold Cup, sponsored this year by Timico, will take home £575,000. Coneygree made history in 2015 by becoming the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 41 years. He won’t be at Cheltenham to defend his title, so the question is who will win the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
The atmosphere is electric and whether those watching have bet on the winner or not, everyone cheers in the Gold Cup winner. The press will be out and about sniffing out scoops of the day and will no doubt keep Communications Manager Sophia Dale on her toes.
“I do however get the incredible job of taking reporters out to meet the horses, three weeks before The Festival, in the yards of the likes of Willie Mullins, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson. It is a huge privilege,” she says. And I must say she is extremely good at what she does. Over the past six months she has given me a thorough and comprehensive insight into the workings of Cheltenham Racecourse and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. She has also been very patient in my lack of racing knowledge. I am happy to leave her to deal with the media experts in this industry such as sports presenter Clare Balding who will be back at Cheltenham, covering the event for Channel 4. As for the event itself, Cheltenham Festival is huge on the sporting calendar.
“It is very special in terms of its position. It such a beautiful venue with the impressive backdrop of Cleeve Hill but it is the 4th biggest sporting event in this country behind Wimbledon, Silverstone and Royal Ascot,” explains Sophia. But growing numbers was not the reason behind the Grandstand development.
“It is very important for us to deliver a good customer experience. The new grandstand was not about getting more people in, it was about providing a better experience for the 70,000 people who come here to watch the races.”
For four days the rich green racecourse will be awash with brightly coloured coats, scarves, hats, boots as racegoers turn up in their thousands to cheer, applaud, raise their glasses and spend a few pounds. Ian Renton, Regional Director of Cheltenham, who took over from Edward Gillespie in October 2012 is looking forward to his 4th Festival at the helm.
“This year The Festival is going to be as popular as ever with the four days in March providing an amazing race experience for a quarter of a million people. I personally can’t wait until we open the gates at 10.30 on Tuesday, March 15th and myself and the team will be of course be working super hard in the build up and during those four days to deliver the magnificent spectacle that is the Cheltenham Festival.”
On the Tuesday at 1.30pm the first race marks the start of Cheltenham Festival 2016 and if the wind is still, those living and walking close to Prestbury Park will no doubt hear the crowds as they make the almighty Cheltenham Roar.
Three different types of tickets:
The Best Mate Enclosure - no access to the parade ring, shopping village, but great views of the course and live music all day. Prices start at £35.
Tattersalls Enclosure - access to main areas including the parade ring, the Shopping Village and the Guinness Village. Prices start at £49.
Club Enclosure - access to all public areas, including The Princess Royal Stand. Prices start at £80.