The 2019 Cheltenham Festival: all you need to know
Where to watch, who to back and what to look out at Prestbury Park this week
Laurina flies the flag for Willie Mullins in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Here we are again. Standing on the edge of the cliff, ready to dive head first into the greatest week off the year.
The 2019 Cheltenham Festival is upon us, the showcase event for Ireland’s greatest sporting export - national hunt racing.
It has been a very strange year for jumps fans, jockeys, trainers and owners alike, with unseasonably dry weather meaning many horses have been lightly raced throughout the winter.
But now the waiting is nearly over and the stars of the game are ready to be unleashed.
Across the next four days and 28 races stories will be written, dreams will be dashed, dockets will be torn up and history will be made.
And so, here is everything you need to know ahead of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.
What is it?
The Cheltenham Festival is National Hunt Racing’s blue-riband event - think the All-Ireland Championship, European Cup and Six Nations rolled into one.
When is it?
The Festival starts on Tuesday March 12th and finishes on Friday March 15th.
Where is it?
At Prestbury Park, in Cheltenham, Gloucester (UK). Watch the Cotswolds come alive.
How can I follow it?
Virgin Media One and ITV will show each day of the Festival free-to-air from 1.0pm-4.30pm, meaning you’ll miss the last two races on each card.
But don’t despair - you don’t need a fancy Racing TV subscription to see every race. You can follow all of the action each day via the Irish Times liveblog.
How many people go?
Around 260,000 across the four days.
But can I still go?
You can but tickets for the opening three days of the Festival HERE. Gold Cup day is now sold out. however.
What’s the going like?
Last year’s Festival was run on almost bottomless ground, with Native River memorably ploughing through the mud and up the hill to hold Might Bite and win the Gold Cup.
This year the ground in Ireland and the UK has largely been good, as a result of a relatively dry winter. However, that is all set to change this week.
Up to 12mm of rain is expected to fall in Cheltenham on Tuesday, which is likely to see the Festival kick off with soft ground on the old and new courses.
The likes of Willie Mullins will be licking their lips at the forecast, with a bit of cut in the ground boosting the chances of the majority of runners.
While the rain is likely to play its part in proceedings, there is also a wind warning in place for Wednesday. Gusts of up to 80km/h are expected on Day Two, bringing back bad memories of 2008 when the second day of the Festival had to be suspended, due to high winds and the impact they could have on the track’s temporary facilities.
However, clerk of the course Simon Claisse has allayed fears of a repeat: “Most of the site is protected when the wind comes in as it is forecast from the west or southwest. So it’s all systems because we’re not exposed to the same vulnerability as in 2008.”
Your 28 races are as follows . . .
TUESDAY, MARCH 12th
1.30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
2.10 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)
2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase
3.30 Unibet Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)
4.10 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
4.50 Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase
5.30 National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 13th
1.30 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
2.10 RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
2.50 Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle
3.30 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1)
4.10 Glenfarclas Chase
4.50 Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1)
THURSDAY, MARCH 14th
1.30 JLT Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
2.10 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle
2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1)
3.30 Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
4.10 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase
4.50 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle
5.30 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase
FRIDAY, MARCH 15th
1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1)
2.10 Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle
2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
3.30 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1)
4.10 St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase
4.50 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase
5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
How is the Irish challenge looking?
Very strong, again. There were 17 Irish winners at the 2019 Festival - two less than 2017 - but the raiders still romped the Prestbury Cup (Ireland v Britain), with the home ‘team’ managing 11.
It has been a relatively frustrating winter for Willie Mullins, who has had far fewer runners than usual on account of the ground . His Festival squad doesn’t look quite as loaded as in previous years, but he still holds a very strong hand. On Tuesday alone he has two very live chances in the Supreme - Klassical Dream and Aramon - while Benie Des Dieux is a hot favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle. He also has Laurina in the Champion Hurdle and Ballyward in the National Hunt Chase - it could be a barnstorming start for Mullins.
Gordon Elliott meanwhile is set for another fine week, after he landed eight winners in 2018, and he is bidding for a third-consecutive leading trainers award. As well as dominating the handicaps he has a number of exciting novices - Battleoverdoyen (11-4) looks hot in the Ballymore - while victory for Apple’s Jade (2-1) in the Champion Hurdle and the insanely versatile Tiger Roll (Evs) in the Cross Country would prove very popular.
Elsewhere, Joseph O’Brien could be set for his first ever Festival success with the well-fancied Sir Erec (Evs) in Friday’s Triumph Hurdle. O’Brien won the same race with Ivanovic Gorbatov in 2016, although it was technically his father Aidan whose name was on the training license.
And of course, we can’t forget Presenting Percy - the long-term antepost favourite for Friday’s Gold Cup. He is trained by Pat Kelly out in Galway and owned by Philip Reynolds, but we’ll get onto him later. . .
And the home challenge?
Nicky Henderson boasts a strong hand as always and trains the one truly untouchable horse of the week - the mighty Altior. Altior is a three-time Festival winner, having won the Supreme in 2016, followed by an Arkle and a Champion Chase. He is around 2-5 to retain his crown on Wednesday and will go down as one of the best two-mile chasers in history.
There has been a serious resurgence for Paul Nicholls this season, after a number of years in the wilderness when it came to the biggest prizes. It has been 10 years since he last won the Gold Cup - the great Kauto Star’s second success - but he finally has a live contender again in the shape of Clan Des Obeaux (9-2), who won the King George on Stephen’s Day and shaped very nicely to win the Denman Chase as Ascot in February.
Colin Tizzard trained last year’s Gold Cup winner, Native River (7-2), and the rain will seriously boost his chances of a repeat - although a win for Thistlecrack (16-1) would bring the house down.
There are also two leading Grade One hopes from smaller stables. Lalor (5-1) is a leading fancy for the Arkle, with Richard Johnson on board. Lalor is trained by 33-year-old Kayley Woollacott, after her husband Richard took his own life in January 2018.
And on Thursday Paisley Park (5-4) is favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle, after he produced a demolition job to win the Cleeve Hurdle in January. His owner, Andrew Gemmell, has been blind from birth and Paisley Park would prove another very popular winner.
Who’s favourite for the Prestbury Cup?
Who’s favourite for leading trainer?
Gordon Elliott 6-5
Willie Mullins 2-1
Nicky Henderson 11-4
Paul Nicholls 14-1
Joseph O’Brien 16-1
And what about the leading jockey?
Barry Geraghty 3-1
The curious case of Presenting Percy
Nothing sums up what a strange season it has been more than the fact that the Gold Cup favourite is yet to jump a fence in anger this season. Presenting Percy (7-2) has had just one run this season - an impressive win in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January.
No horse has won the Gold Cup without having had a run over fences for 90 years, but Presenting Percy’s victory in the 2018 RSA Chase was so impressive he remains many people’s idea of a Gold Cup winner. Trained by the elusive Pat Kelly in a small stable in Galway, he and owner Philip Reynolds have opted to keep him wrapped up in cotton wool this season before heading to the big one on Friday.
It looks a risky strategy, but if it comes off it would be a remarkable story.
What to look out for each day
This year’s Champion Hurdle could be the race of the week, with two-time winner Buveur D’Air (5-2) looking to defend his crown against the prodigious Laurina (4-1) and the mighty Apple’s Jade, who has 10 Grade Ones to her name. It looks like a thrilling renewal, and with both mares getting a 7lb allowance they present a serious threat to Nicky Henderson’s champion.
Given her lack of experience compared to her two market rivals Laurina looks short in the betting, but she is obviously very highly thought of and the soft ground should work in her favour.
Elsewhere Willie Mullins’ duo of Klassical Dream (9-2) and Aramon (14-1) were split by a short head in a Leopardstown Grade One in February, with Klassical Dream just coming out on top.They both line up in the Supreme and the latter looks a very generous price to reverse that form.
Bets of the day
Aramon to win the Supreme (16-1, Oddschecker)
Laurina to win the Champion Hurdle (4-1)
Wednesday could be Gordon Elliott’s. Battleoverdoyen (7-2) is a serious physical specimen and is currently second-favourite in the Ballymore, with Delta Work (7-4) then favourite for the RSA Chase. Elliott also has the favourite in the Champion Bumper in Envoi Allen (7-2), while Grand National hero Tiger Roll (Evs) will be bring the house down if he wins the Cross Country.
Away from Elliott, all eyes will be on Altior as he bids for Champion Chase success -Willie Mullins’ Min looks the most likely to pick up the pieces in behind him.
Bets of the day
Battleoverdoyen to win the Ballymore (7-2, Oddschecker)
Min to win the Champion Chase w/o Altior (Evs, Bet365)
The absence of Joseph O’Brien’s exciting Le Richebourg through injury had led to suggestion Philip Hobbs’ Defi Du Seuil - who wears the silks of JP McManus - would be re-routed to the Arkle, but he remains in the JLT for which he looks a very solid 5-2 favourite.
Later in the day Footpad (10-3) sits at the top of the market for the Ryanair Chase, just ahead of Monalee (4-1) and Road To Respect (9-2). However it could be worth siding with 2017 winner Un De Sceaux. Although now an 11-year-old, Un De Sceaux (5-1) delivered an outstanding performance in defeat to Altior in December, out-jumping his rival before just being outclassed up the straight at Sandown. If he ran at a similar level on Thursday he should go very close.
Elsewhere, if Faugheen (9-2) could take the Stayers’ Hurdle ahead of Paisley Park, it would represent a serious training performance from Willie Mullins.
Bets of the day
Defi Du Seuil to win the JLT (5-2)
Un De Sceaux to win the Ryanair (5-1)
The grand finale, and all eyes will be on the big one, with the Gold Cup off at 3.30pm. The race looks incredibly open as ever, and the rain showing up has seen defending champion Native River (7-2) gain plenty of popularity in the betting. Willie Mullins is three-handed with Kemboy (9-1), Bellshill (12-1) and Invitation Only (40-1).
Presenting Percy would prove a popular winner ,while it could be worth siding with Gordon Elliott’s mare, Shattered Love (20-1). She was an impressive winner of last year’s JLT, should enjoy the ground and gets a 7lb mares allowance, making her a solid each way bet.
In the day’s opening race Sir Erec (Evs) looks very hard to oppose. Paul Nicholls’ Pic D’orhy (10-1) is a relatively unkown quantity but boasts some good French form and could upset the Irish party. In the Albert Bartlett , Philip Dempsey’s Derrinross (12-1) could relish the mud.
Bets of the day
Presenting Percy to win the Gold Cup (7-2)
Shattered Love to win the Gold Cup E/W (20-1)
No run over fences? No problem!
We might not have won the Six Nations, but at least the Prestbury Cup is ours!