(Matt: Bumped to the front. A great look at one of the premier fixtures in European racing - the Cheltenham Festival)
The winter racing code of UK, Ireland and France has its big meeting starting tomorrow (Tues) for 4 days. With flat racing taking a back seat since November (and the new flat turf season not starting until the week after the festival) jump racing takes centre stage for, imho, the best 4 days of racing of the year.
On a unique course, in front of a 50,000 crowd that creates a unique atmosphere, the cream of the crop of the jump horses in training from UK, Ireland and France converge in the Cotswold countryside for 4 days racing during which champions will be crowned.
The Festival is best thought of as jump racing's Breeders Cup - by the end of the week there will be champions crowned at each distance. If you have been anywhere near any UK or Irish racing website in the last few weeks you will have noticed little else is being discussed. There have been other graded races throughout the season but all these (whilst of merit) are little but stepping stones to the big goal - to become a Festival winner.
Televised free to air on mainstream channels in both UK and Ireland, it is one of racings big shop windows. Thousands will make the pilgrimage from all over the UK and Ireland for the week or for the day, on foot, by car, train and by coach party, to stake, win and lose money like it doesn't matter. Many many more watch along at home, in pubs and clubs. As a friend at the races once commented it is the one race meeting of the year where you can have so much fun, whilst losing so much money. It's a sport which, after it bites you, rarely lets you go. Above all the nature of the game is such that backing a loser doesn't stop you admiring the horse that beats you.
The Festival is 27 races over 4 days. 12 Grade 1s, 2 Grade 2s, 9 top class handicaps (Grade3/Listed), 1 cross country race, Mares hurdle, Champion Bumper, and 3 races for Amateur riders
Championship Jump racing is over three main distances - 2 miles, 2 1/2 miles, 3 miles.
There are two types of obstacles - hurdles and fences (races called chases/steeplechases)
Two divisions - All Horses, and Novice Horses - a novice is a horse that hasn't won over that type of obstacle at the start of the season (category is to give the horses a chance to run against similarly inexperienced horses for a season)
4yos - have their own age restricted novice category, the juvenile division
The idea is that there is a progression for jump horses to follow as they grow older and stronger - Juvenile/Novice Hurdler - Hurdler - Novice Chaser - Chaser. Indeed by the end of their careers some of these horses are almost old friends.
This week a champion will be crowned at each distance and in each division.
The Grade 1 and 2s are for
2m, 2 1/2m and 3m Novice Hurdler
2m and 3m Hurdler
2m, 2 1/2m and 3m Novice Chaser
2m, 2 1/2m, and 3m Chaser
Mares Only Hurdle (2 1/2m)
NH Flat Race (Bumper) - more on this later.
The Handicaps follow suit
2m 4yo Hurdler, 2m Hurdler, 2 1/2m Hurdlers (x2), 3m Hurdler
2 1/2 m Novice Chaser
2m Chaser, 2 1/2m Chaser, 3m Chaser
The amateur riders also get their day in the sun - with a 4m Novice Chase, a 3m Hcap Chase and the Foxhunter Championship race.
Racecards showing which races are on each day at the Racing Post site here - with each day's card centred around one of the four feature races (in bold above). Click on date tab for each days card.
Racecourse profile - the course starts level, then goes out "into the country" for a circuit (or two) that climbs and descends Cleeve Hill before levelling out for the last jump, before climbing a hill to the post. The terrain is mentioned throughout race commentaries. The course requires both agility and stamina.
Note that racecards can be full of letters as well as numbers. F = fell, U = unseated rider, B = brought down. A solid reminder that this sport is for the brave. Jumping is as important as galloping to become a winner. There are always spills to accompany the thrills.
The final runners and riders for day one will be appearing later today (on the above link) and then the countdown proper begins.
At 1.30pm UK time tomorrow the traditional roar of the crowd will accompany the lifting of the tape for the first race. Horses will have been selected and punted, all that is left will be hope......that amongst ones selections will be some winners, that all horses and jockeys come home safe and sound, that great champion(s) will emerge and be crowned, for close finishes, for small queues in the bars and at the food stands, for good weather and for great racing, and that (all things being equal) both you and many of the horses will be back again to do it all over again next year.
Come and join the fun