The Cheltenham Festival 2018: all you need to know

Where to watch, who to back and what to look out for during the best week of the year

Ruby Walsh will be hoping Faugheen can roll back the years in the Champion Hurdle. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Ruby Walsh will be hoping Faugheen can roll back the years in the Champion Hurdle. Photograph: David Davies/PA

 

The Cheltenham Festival is upon us – the pinnacle of the National Hunt season and one of the year’s premier sporting events is finally here.

On Tuesday afternoon, at around 1.30pm, the starter’s flag will be lowered and the first guttural roar of the week will ring out around Prestbury Park.

Across four days and 28 races legends will be made, tears will be shed and broken dockets will be torn up – and we’ve got it all ahead of us.

After winning an unprecedented 19 races in 2017, the Irish raiders boast another very strong hand this year – however the power balance is expected to be restored slightly by a powerful home team.

As ever, it is shaping up to be a thriller – here is all you need to know before the best week of the year.

What is it?

The Cheltenham Festival is National Hunt racing’s blue-riband event – four days of the finest jumps racing the UK and Ireland have to offer.

Where is it?

The festival is held at Cheltenham racecourse, which is located at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

When is it held?

This year’s festival begins on Tuesday March 13th and concludes on Friday March 16th – a quiet St Patrick’s Day will be on the cards.

Lisa O’Neill on board Apple’s Jade. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Lisa O’Neill on board Apple’s Jade. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

How can I watch it?

All four days of the festival are broadcast on TV3 (1pm-4.30pm), and on ITV, who took the rights off Channel 4 in 2017.

However, presuming most people will be in the office rather than at home on the sofa, you can follow all of the racing via the Irish Times live blog, which will be up and running from 12.30pm each day.

Can I still go?

You can still purchase tickets for the first three days of the festival through the Jockey Club (available here). Gold Cup day, however, is sold out.

What’s the going like?

The Beast from the East hit southwest England hard and while a team of 50-60 staff were able to remove heavy snow from the track, the rain which has followed since has hardly helped the ground dry out.

Last Friday, the festival’s clerk of the course Simon Claisse suggested soft ground on Tuesday was likely – while it could be heavy in places. The forecasted rain which arrived in Cheltenham over the weekend has exacerbated matters.

On Monday morning the going was declared as heavy, soft in places. A total of 10 millimetres of overnight rain led to the change – with further showers forecast throughout the day.

A Cheltenham statement read: “10mm overnight with further rain anticipated through the day (3 to 4mm). Tuesday mostly dry, temps 10/11C.”

Gordon Elliott is looking to retain the trainer’s title he won in 2017. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Gordon Elliott is looking to retain the trainer’s title he won in 2017. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The schedule

TUESDAY, MARCH 13th

1.30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

2.10 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy

2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase

3.30 Unibet Champion Hurdle

4.10 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

4.50 National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase

5.30 Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14th

1.30 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle

2.10 RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase

2.50 Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle

3.30 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

4.10 Glenfarclas Chase

4.50 Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle

5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper

THURSDAY, MARCH 15th

1.30 JLT Novices’ Chase

2.10 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle

2.50 Ryanair Chase

3.30 Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

4.10 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase

4.50 Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle

5.30 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase

FRIDAY, MARCH 16th

1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle

2.10 Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle

3.30 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup

4.10 St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase

4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle

5.30 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase

How is the Irish challenge looking?

There were a staggering 19 winners in 2017 – an improvement on a very impressive haul of 15 in 2016. It is unlikely Ireland will improve on that, but expect another big week and justification of odds-on favouritism for the Prestbury Cup.

Willie Mullins has a typically strong hand, although this season hasn’t been as straightforward as usual. But still, he trains the favourites for the festival’s opening two races – Getabird in the Supreme (6-4) and Footpad in the Arkle (11-8).

Gordon Elliott’s string at Prestbury Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Gordon Elliott’s string at Prestbury Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

A win for Footpad would be a nightmare start to the week for the bookies, and he is one of the week’s strongest Irish fancies. A lot of the focus on Mullins’s team this week will be on Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle. If the ‘Machine’ can roll back the years to beat odds-on favourite Buveur d’Air it will go down as arguably Mullins’s finest training performance.

Elsewhere, Gordon Elliott looks set for another big week after winning last year’s leading trainer award, with Samcro set to light up the festival in Wednesday’s Ballymore (4-6). He also has a very strong hand in the Cross Country Chase, with Cause of Causes (11-4) and Tiger Roll (11-2) both at the head of the market.

The absence of Jessica Harrington’s Sizing John – last year’s Gold Cup hero – is a huge blow, but she still has Our Duke as a 7-1 third favourite in Friday’s feature. Supasundae is a 5-1 second favourite in Thursday’s Stayer’s Hurdle but the ground looks against him.

Elsewhere, there is a fascinating battle shaping up in the RSA Chase between Patrick Kelly’s Presenting Percy (5-2) and Henry De Bromhead’s Monalee (7-2), while Noel Meade’s Road to Respect (10-1) has a live chance in the Gold Cup providing the ground doesn’t turn too soft.

And how about the home team?

As it stands, Nicky Henderson has the favourites for three of the week’s four feature races. Buveur d’Air is 8-15 for the Champion Hurdle and looks very hard to oppose, with Faugheen (6-1) looking past his best and the mercurial Yorkhill (10-1) having disappointed this season, albeit over fences.

Barry Geraghty is expected to partner Buveur D’Air to Champion Hurdle victory. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Barry Geraghty is expected to partner Buveur D’Air to Champion Hurdle victory. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

Henderson also has the brilliant Altior in Wednesday’s Champion Chase (Evs) while the enigmatic Might Bite is a general 3-1 favourite for the Gold Cup.

Jedd O’Keeffe’s Sam Spinner leads the market in the Stayer’s Hurdle (4-1), and would prove a very popular winner for the north of England.

Who’s going to be the leading jockey?

As ever Ruby Walsh – who returned from injury at Thurles last week – has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, and he’s a 10-11 favourite to win the title for a sixth consecutive year. Jack Kennedy (6-1) and Barry Geraghty (13-2) look the most likely alternatives.

What should I look out for each day?

Tuesday

Victory for Getabird in the Supreme – albeit at a short price – could set the tone for the week, especially if Footpad follows up in the Arkle. If Buveur d’Air takes the Champion Hurdle and Apple’s Jade (8-13) retains her Mares’ Hurdle crown it could be a very long week for the bookies.

Bet of the day: Getabird to win the Supreme and Footpad to win the Arkle, double (4.9-1, Paddy Power).

Wednesday

All eyes are on the Champion Chase and the tantalising prospect of a clash between Altior and the mighty Douvan, who is now as short as 11-4 in places. Rich Ricci indicated on Sunday Douvan could be switched to Thursday’s Ryanair, but he was left in at the 48-hour stage, paving the way for the heavyweight contest everyone is desperate to see.

Ruby Walsh has opted to ride Douvan over Min – which suggests the eight-year-old is showing signs at home that he is somewhere back towards his best. A clash for the ages is on the cards.

That is, if Altior runs. Henderson reported Altior lame on Monday, with a decision to be announced on Tuesday morning.

Elsewhere, Samcro in the Ballymore is a nice start to the day, followed by the aforementioned ding-dong between Presenting Percy and Monalee in the RSA.

Bet of the day: Elliott’s Cause of Causes is a three-time festival winner and can retain his Cross Country crown under Jamie Codd (11-4, Oddschecker).

Thursday

Un De Sceaux delivered one of the performances of the 2017 festival to win the Ryanair, and looks set to defend his crown this year (6-4). Even at 10 years old Un De Sceaux will prove very hard to beat – especially on soft ground – and he should have far too much for veteran English favourite Cue Card (5-1).

Ruby Walsh and Un De Sceaux after Ryanair victory in 2017. Photograph: Harry trump/Getty
Ruby Walsh and Un De Sceaux after Ryanair victory in 2017. Photograph: Harry trump/Getty

Mullins’s Laurina is one of the Irish bankers later in the day in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle (8-11).

Bet of the day: Un De Sceaux to defend his crown in fine style (6-4, Oddschecker).

Friday

The unbeaten Apple’s Shakira has been a long-time favourite for the Triumph Hurdle (11-4), and her last three wins have come on boggy ground at Cheltenham. Elliott’s Farclas (8-1) or Mullins’s Stormy Ireland (8-1) seem the most likely to spoil the party.

Definitly Red won the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Definitly Red won the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

The Gold Cup remains a difficult puzzle to solve, especially with last year’s winner Sizing John out of the equation. Might Bite remains a warm favourite but is stepping into the unknown and if the ground turns it into a slog there are a number of horses who could make the frame.

Native River (4-1) finished third in last year’s Gold Cup and has had a much easier season this time round – Colin Tizzard’s seven-year-old won February’s Denman chase at Newbury in fine style on soft.

Might Bite holds off Double Shuffle in the King George. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Might Bite holds off Double Shuffle in the King George. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

The likely ride of Ruby Walsh, Killultagh Vic (10-1) looked set to mount a serious challenge before falling at the last in the Irish Gold Cup, while Definitly Red (16-1) won January’s Cotswold Chase on heavy ground at Cheltenham in fine style.

Further down the betting, Double Shuffle gave Might Bite a serious run for his money in the King George at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day. He is available at a generous 40-1, having finished just a game length behind the 3-1 favourite, and could represent some each way value.

Bets of the day: Definitly Red to win the Gold Cup (16-1, Oddschecker). Double Shuffle to win the Gold Cup EW (40-1, Oddschecker).

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