For any racing fan, turning the calendar over from February into March means only one thing, the Cheltenham Festival.
The Grand National and Epsom Derby may bring in more TV viewers and Royal Ascot has the global appeal, but the Cheltenham Festival remains a pilgrimage for a quarter of a million racegoers who will once again descend on Prestbury Park next week.
It is also an exciting time of year for the team behind the scenes at Cheltenham as they prepare for the biggest event of their season.Embed from Getty Images
Regional director Ian Renton spoke to the Sports Gazette at the Festival’s media lunch last week.
“It is a full-on time of year but I absolutely love it. I think we all work all year round to put on these four fantastic days of racing in March,” he said.
“Ticket sales are very similar to last year and we are hoping to match the 260,000 total attendance from 2018.”
The Festival’s showpiece race — the Gold Cup — has a new sponsor for 2019 with Magners taking over from Timico and Renton has throughly enjoyed the relationship with the cider company.
He said: “It has been brilliant working with Magners, they’ve done a Road to Gold Roadshow, taking the Gold Cup around the UK and Ireland which has been brilliant to promote the Festival.”Embed from Getty Images
Responsibilities on the track fall to clerk of the course Simon Claisse, who this time last year was preparing Cheltenham against everything the ‘Beast from the East’ could throw at him. There are such no problems in 2019 with the Gloucestershire venue enjoying unseasonable high temperatures for the end of February.
“The one thing we welcome in the lead up to the Festival is warm weather. We haven’t had rain for two weeks which means setting up the track can be done without any worry,” Claisse said.
“We welcome the updated forecast that shows significant rain fall up until the Monday before the Festival. It would be hard to not back good to soft ground on day one if I was a punter.”
Cheltenham uses two courses for the Festival — the Old Course is used for the opening two days and the New Course takes over for the longer distance events on Thursday and Friday.
Claisse confirmed that both courses are in similar condition and that 90% of the ground used for the meeting will be fresh and not used in any of the fixtures at the course this season.Embed from Getty Images
The entries for all 28 races at the Festival have now been confirmed and Claisse is delighted with the numbers and the calibre of horses that will be taking part.
He said: “We’ve got four of last year’s five champions for the Grade Ones coming back. We’ve had record numbers of Irish entries in the handicaps and some very strong novices. It is going to be four fantastic days of sport.”
While preparations take place on the course, it is a nervous time for the trainers who are hoping that their stable stars are in top condition when they arrive at Cheltenham.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is hoping to get the week off to a flying start as he is the current favourite for the opening race of the meeting. Al Dancer is currently a 7-2 chance for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Twiston-Davies hopes that he has something special.
“He is as good a two-mile novice we’ve had. He was very free at Ascot, but the pace will be better in the Supreme,” he said. “He will hopefully win that and then I can go home for the week.”Embed from Getty Images
Twiston-Davies is also hoping that Bristol de Mai can put his Cheltenham hoodoo to bed and produce a strong performance in the Gold Cup.
The eight-year old has won back-to-back Betfair Chases at Haydock and fell when challenging in the King George VI Chase in his last run on Boxing Day, but is yet to win a race at the Festival.
Twiston-Davies said: “He won the Betfair Chase at Haydock nicely against a lot of runners who will be back for the Gold Cup. I think he is overpriced at 25-1.”
Ben Pauling is a local trainer in Gloucestershire and he is excited to have his first runner in one of the championship races at the Festival. Pauling — who only started training horses in 2013 — is set to send Global Citizen to the Champion Hurdle, Tuesday’s feature race.Embed from Getty Images
When asked about the horse he said: “I said to the owners at the end of last season to leave him over hurdles and have a go at the Champion.”
“At the moment, that looks a good decision. He is a lively each way chance, his jumping is electric and the quicker they go the better he will be.”
Pauling’s other big hope for the Festival is Kildisart, who will run in the JLT Chase on Thursday. He won a good handicap chase over course and distance on Festival Trials Day and ran well at Aintree’s Grand National meeting last season.
He said: “Winning at Cheltenham on Trials Day has put him to a rating of 147 and that gives him a great chance for the JLT. He is a good jumper, he could improve and go close here.”
The traditional ‘Cheltenham roar’ will set the runners on their way for the opening race at 1.30pm next Tuesday and what follows is four of the best days of the British sporting calendar.
Featured photograph/Cheltenham Racecourse