Under starter’s orders for the greatest show on Earth

Posted on 08/03/2014 by

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The crocuses are out in a riot of colour, daffodils stretch up to greet the watery sunshine and the days are getting longer and warmer. Yes, winter’s over and spring has finally sprung – and for thousands of National Hunt fans that can mean only one thing: the Cheltenham Festival, the greatest equine show on Earth!

For four frenetic days in March, this genteel and reserved Gloucestershire spa town is transformed into a vibrant, buzzing cauldron of noise, colour and excitement. For lovers of the jump racing game Cheltenham’s Prestbury Park is Mecca and the Festival is the climax to the jump season.

Race meetings have been held at this natural amphitheatre in the shadow of the Cotswolds for over a century, and the Festival itself has continued to grow and grow in size and in stature. Tens of thousands will make the annual pilgrimage against next week, with millions more television viewers joining them in spirit.

Cheltenham’s allure? Quite simply, it’s the greatest race meting on the planet. The races over the four days of the Festival are the most competitive in the jump racing calendar, contested by the outstanding horses and top jockeys from the UK, Ireland and yes, the rest of the world too. The unique nature of the course, with it’s undulations and stiff uphill finish, is the supreme test of horse and jockey. Courage, stamina, speed and agility – qualities that are all needed in abundance and if there’s a weakness, if there’s a chink in your armour then cruel Cheltenham will surely find you out.

The rewards for success, however, are considerable. For an owner, the exhilaration of having a Cheltenham Festival winner is the ultimate, the pinnacle, the Holy Grail – and that’s whether you own one horse in a tiny wee stable up North or you have a huge team of horses housed in the finest stables in England and across the Irish Sea. Grand National aside, there’s nothing like a Cheltenham Festival winner. For punters, too, a winner at Cheltenham is always that little bit sweeter – and, given the competitive nature of the racing (particularly those impenetrable handicaps!), the starting prices tend to be that bit more generous too!

National Hunt racing is egalitarian; it’s still a sport, and it feels like a sport: a country pursuit where the super-rich and the not-so-rich, the amateur and the professional rub shoulders and get along just fine, united in equine admiration. The joy of being there to soak up that unique atmosphere – and maybe even picking a Cheltenham winner too – transcends class and social status.

And unlike the parallel universe of flat racing, where £ multi-million‘superstars’ burn brightly for a few races and quickly retire to stud, the often unsung stars of the National Hunt game keep coming back to enthral and entertain us, race after race, season after season – health and fitness permitting. No, you can keep your cosseted, namby pamby Prima Donnas; give me those brave, battling grizzled old steeplechasers any day.

So we’re almost there – the clock’s ticking down to the almighty Cheltenham roar that marks the tapes going up to start the opening race on Tuesday. Will we see another Golden Miller, a new Arkle or a Desert Orchid? Cheltenham invariably produces a new hero, another fairy tale. And has the wretched winter weather wreaked havoc with training preparations, handing the initiative to Irish raiders? Can Quevega create history by winning the Mare’s Hurdle for an incredible sixth time on Tuesday? Can Big Buck’s come back and regain his World Hurdle title on Thursday? And is Friday’s Gold Cup really a head-to-head between Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti, or can an unheralded outsider beat the pair to take National Hunt’s blue riband? You just don’t know – the delicious uncertainty of Cheltenham make the occasion what is: pure spectacle, drama and theatre, delight and despair with more ups and downs than Prestbury Park itself.

For the punter, winners as always will be hard to find but, win or lose (and let’s face it, it’s usually lose!) I can hardly wait. The excitement’s building, so strap yourself in and hang on to your hat – we’re in for a bumpy ride!

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The Cheltenham Festival 11 – 14 March 2014

For further information visit http://www.cheltenham.co.uk

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