The Cheltenham Festival is the highlight of the UK and Irish National Hunt (jumps racing) season – an annual end of season four-day ‘”championships” for different types of horse who specialise in different types of race. However, for the uninitiated these different race types can be confusing.
For example, there are a number of novice hurdle races staged over the four days – what’s the difference between them, how and why do owners and trainers choose which, if any, to aim their novices at? What’s a novice?!
Below we outline everything you need to know about the wide variety of Festival races, which horses usually race in them and why.
Hurdles / Chases / Bumpers
The 27 races at the Cheltenham Festival consist of 14 chases, 12 hurdle races and 1 flat, or bumper, race.
Chases: Sometimes called steeplechases, chases involve horses jumping larger, rigid obstacles called fences (a minimum of 4½ feet high) and are run over distances of 2-4½ miles. The Grand National is the season’s longest chase, whilst the National Hunt Chase is the longest chase run at the Festival.
Hurdles: In hurdle races the horses jump smaller, more flexible obstacles (typically about 3½ feet in height). They are run over distances of 2-3½ miles.
Both types of race consist of a minimum of 8 obstacles.
Bumper: Bumper is the informal term for a flat race for jump horses, in which they gain racing experience before going hurdling or chasing. These races are usually confined to four, five and six-year-olds and are run over distances of 1½-2½ miles. The term “Bumper” comes from the fact that in the past, only amateur riders were allowed to compete and they typically had an ungainly “bumping” style in comparison to the professionals.
The Champion Bumper is the only Bumper run at the Festival and it regularly showcases some of the most exciting young horses in training, who subsequently go on to make big names for themselves over hurdles or fences.
Hurdlers / Chasers
Hurdlers: Horses may compete in hurdle races to give them practice at jumping before they “step up” to chases. Hurdle races are often, therefore, a stepping stone to competing in chases. However, many of the best hurdlers will never run over fences as there are plenty of big prizes for the top horses to win.
The most prestigious hurdle race is the Festival’s Champion Hurdle. It is the ultimate speed test for hurdlers run, as it is, over the minimum trip of 2 miles.
By contrast, the World Hurdle, also run at the Festival, is the biggest prize for staying hurdlers (i.e. hurdlers who have more stamina than speed).
Chasers: Few horses go straight over fences. Most compete in hurdles first and then switch to fences as their jumping technique improves and/or because they are too slow for hurdle races.
The best chases are considered more prestigious than the best hurdle races, and the ultimate target for all horses is the Gold Cup. It is the sport’s most highly coveted prize and it is run on the last day of the Festival. It has been won by legends of the sport such as Golden Miller, Arkle, Desert Orchid and, more recently, Best Mate, Kauto Star and Denman.
Unlike with hurdles, the biggest prizes over fences are run over longer trips. The Gold Cup, for example, is run over 3 miles and 2 furlongs.
However, the ultimate prize for speedier chasers is the Champion Chase, run over two miles on the Wednesday of the Festival.
Another category of chase is the Hunter Chase. These races are confined to amateur riders and to horses that have hunter certificates. Hunter certificates are issued to horses that have hunted for at least four days in the season before racing starts in January. In addition the jockey must be an amateur who has obtained a certificate from the hunt secretary.
The Foxhunters is the only Hunter Chase run at the Festival. It takes place immediately after the Gold Cup and because it is run over the same course and distance it is often referred to as the amateur Gold Cup.
Novice or not?
A novice is a horse who has not won a race under a particular code (hurdling or chasing) before the current season.
The best speedier novice hurdles will be aimed at the Supreme Novices Hurdle, whilst the best staying novice hurdles run in the Neptune Investment Management (formerly Ballymore Properties) Novices Hurdle .
Likewise, the speedy novice chasers run in the Arkle and the stayers have the RSA Chase as their target.
In simple terms, the horses that perform best in the Supreme Novices Hurdle will often be aimed at the following season’s Champion Hurdle, those that shine in the Arkle will go on to compete in the Champion Chase and the RSA Chase is often seen as a stepping stone to future Gold Cups.
That said, there is nothing to stop novices running in normal hurdles or chases. The last novice to win the Gold Cup was Captain Christy in 1974, whilst Alderbrook was still a novice when capturing the Champion Hurdle in 1995.
A further category of novice is the juvenile hurdler. These are basically three year old hurdlers (who turn four on 31 December, which is the official birthday for all racehorses). Horses cannot run over hurdles before they are three.
The Triumph Hurdle is the championship contest for juveniles.
There are 11 handicap races at the Festival. A handicap is a race where horses carry different weights - this allows for more skill in betting.
After it has raced a few times and been adequately assessed a horse is awarded a handicap mark that allows it to be compared to all other horses under that code (horses can have different handicap marks for turf, all-weather, chase and hurdles races). A horse's handicap figure is then adjusted by the official handicappers judged on its subsequent racing performances. A better horse will carry a heavier weight in order to make the race more fair.
The mark a horse receives relates to the weight it carries in handicap races – the idea being that if all horses perform to their handicap mark on the day they will all dead heat for first place. For example, if a horse is allotted a mark of 94 (180 is the mark of a top-class chaser) and he wins a race, the handicapper may give him a 5lb rise meaning next time he runs his mark is 99 and so on. Remember this is a theoretical mark and does not relate to the physical weight a horse carries. The actual weight a horse carries is defined by the horses he races against.
As a very rough rule of thumb, 1lb equates to one length, so if a horse wins a race by 4 lengths, all other things being equal, he can expect his handicap mark to rise by a similar amount.
If a horse continues to run poorly, its handicap mark will eventually start to drop – although often not quickly enough to please the connections of that horse!
Although most handicap races are not for the very best horses, this is not true in all cases, and some of the biggest races in the world are handicaps, such as the Grand National.
The most prestigious handicaps run at the Festival include the William Hill Chase for staying chasers and the County Hurdle for speedy hurdlers.
There are also some novice and juvenile handicaps – handicap races open to novices or juveniles only – such as the Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase over fences and the Fred Winter for juveniles over hurdles.
One race at the Festival is run over the cross country course.
The course takes racing at Cheltenham back to its roots with a selection of natural and man made obstacles incorporating banks, ditches, hedges, water and timber rails.
Designed by Mike Etherington-Smith, who was responsible for the 3-Day Event cross country course at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the configuration of the course deliberately weaves around the centre of the course, with turns to the left and right leading competitors on a variety of routes and directions.
One of the main differences between the cross country course and the usual chase courses at Cheltenham is the materials used to build the fences. Chase fences are constructed from 'dead' materials whereas the fences on the cross country course are living, growing trees, shrubs and bushes, which are regularly trimmed for racing.
The race basically suits chasers, who jump and stay well.
Point to Points
A point to point is a form of amateur horseracing over fences for hunting horses. In Ireland many of the horses will appear in these races before they compete in National Hunt races either in Ireland or in the UK. In contrast in England and Wales horses running in point to points are more likely to be at the end of their national hunt careers. The Irish point to point is used as a nursery for future young stars: a horse that wins its debut point to point in Ireland will often sell for a lot of money.
Horses running in Point to Points must be thoroughbreds, save in the case of hunt members races and certain other club members races. The horses have to obtain a certificate from a Master of Foxhounds stating that they have hunted for at least 4 days in the season before racing starts in January. In addition the jockey must obtain a certificate from the hunt secretary.
Some Festival greats started off their careers in Point to Points including Florida Pearl, See More Business, Best Mate and Denman.
All races are graded.
The most prestigious contests are, in descending order of importance, Grade 1s, Grade 2s, Grade 3s, Listed contests, Handicaps to Bumpers - the least prestigious. The more highly graded races attract more prize money and better horses.
All National Hunt races are also classified in classes 1 - 7 (class 1 best). Graded and listed races are class 1.
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