What is the Cheltenham Festival?

Held annually over four days in March, the Cheltenham Festival is often described, justifiably, as the ‘Olympic Games of National Hunt racing.’ The Festival programme, which was extended from three days to four in 2005, nowadays consists of 28 races, including 14 at the highest Grade 1 level, in all the disciplines of jump racing. The undisputed highlight of the week is the ‘Blue Riband’ event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which is the feature race on the fourth and final day. The other ‘defining’ events over the four days are the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Stayers’ Hurdle, although the latter nowadays co-stars with the intermediate chasing championship, the Ryanair Chase, inaugurated in 2005, on day three.

The popularity of what is, after all, the biggest horse racing festival staged in Britain, is undeniable. The average attendance over the four days is 65,000, an estimated 15-20% of which is made up of Irish spectators, who make the annual pilgrimage to Prestbury Park, on the northern outskirts of Cheltenham, in the foothills of Cotswolds.

Indeed, horses trained in the Emerald Isle have dominated the Cheltenham Festival in recent years. Since 2016, the Prestbury Cup – that is, the trophy awarded to the nation with the most wins over the four days – has, bar a 14-14 tie in 2019, gone exclusively to Ireland, including by a record score of 23-5 in 2021. Unsurprisingly, Willie Mullins, who is reigning champion trainer on both sides of the Irish Sea, is also the leading trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, with a eye-watering 103 winners to his name at the last count.