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Beginners' guide to the Cheltenham Festival

The Cheltenham Festival is the highlight of every racing fan’s year. A total of 28 races including 14 Grade 1s will be watched by more 250,000 spectators at Prestbury Park, with horses writing their names into racing immortality.

But what’s the difference between all the races? What are the standout races of each day? What’s the difference between a handicap chase and a novice hurdle?

We’ll answer all your questions below.

Horse Racing

What’s the difference between a Hurdle race and a Steeplechase?

This specifically refers to the obstacle to be navigated in a race. Hurdles are lower and are more forgiving when clipped, while fences are higher and tougher to navigate.

How to read a form guide

At first glance, a form guide can look like a random collection of letters and numbers that mean nothing, but it all makes sense when you know how to read one.

Each number from 1-9 represents a horse's finishing position. A 0 means the horse finished 10th or worse.

A - symbol indicates a previous season. Numbers to the left of the dash are from last season, with the most recent run on the right.

A / symbol indicates a longer break.

There are also letters that are important to look out for, and here's what each of them mean:

F - Fell. The most common letter to look out for on a form guide and indicates that a horse fell.
U (or UR) - Unseated rider. This is where the horse didn't fall, but in jumping, its jockey was unseated.
BD - Brought down. This is where a horse falls after being brought down by another horse.
C - Carried out. This is when a horse is taken off track by another, often loose, horse.
R - Refused. This is where a horse has refused to either navigate an obstacle or refused to race full stop.

There are also other abbreviations worth looking out for on a form guide. While they won't be a part of a horse's actual form, you'll likely find them by the horse's name:

C means the horse has won previously at that course
D means the horse has won previously over that distance
CD means the horse has won at the course and over the distance
H refers to a horse wearing a hood
P refers to a horse wearing cheekpieces
B refers to a horse wearing blinkers
T refers to a horse wearing a tongue tie

Cheltenham Festival

Graded races

The calibre of each National Hunt race can be identified by its Grade. Grade 1 races are the best, then Grade 2, then Grade 3s (now known as Premier Handicaps). 

There are also a number of other races at the Cheltenham Festival, from regular handicaps, for horses not of sufficient calibre to compete in Graded races who are each assigned a weight to carry to - in theory - give every horse an equal chance, to races only open to amateur jockeys.

There are a total of 38 Grade 1 races in the UK each season with 14 of them held at the Cheltenham Festival. 

Grade 1 races are the highest calibre races, contested over a both hurdles and fences, with no horses receiving weight penalties except for mares, who receive a 7lb allowance.

Grade 2 races are a level below and will feature many Grade 1-level horses, though these can be given minor penalties to make the race more even.

Grade 3 races are the next level below, and have recently been renamed ‘Premier Handicaps’. As the name suggests, these are the top handicap races and include the Grand National, with successful horses potentially targeting Grade 2 races.

Championship races

While the Grade 1 races are the pinnacle, each day of the Cheltenham Festival hosts a Championship race, with Thursday hosting two. These are the feature races of each day:

Tuesday: Champion Hurdle (2m)

Wednesday: Champion Chase (2m)

Thursday: Ryanair Chase (2m5f), Stayers’ Hurdle (3m)

Friday: Gold Cup (3m2f)

Novice races

These races are for horses typically in their first campaign over a certain obstacle, be it hurdles or fences. A horse that wins over that obstacle is usually ineligible to compete in novice races the following season.

There are 10 novice races at the Cheltenham Festival with most of them targeting bigger races the following year, which we’ve highlighted as part of our daily race guide below:

Tuesday

RaceDistanceObstacle
Supreme Novices' Hurdle2mHurdles
Arkle2mFences
Ultima Handicap3mFences
Champion Hurdle2mHurdles
Mares' Hurdle2m4fHurdles
Boodles/Fred Winter2mHurdles
National Hunt Challenge Cup3m6fFences

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2m)
Potential target(s): Champion Hurdle (2m)

Arkle (2m)
Potential target(s): Champion Chase (2m)

The Cheltenham Festival gets underway on Tuesday with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as the best novice hurdlers compete over two miles. Winners typically stay hurdling in their second season and target the Champion Hurdle, though on occasion they may go chasing, where they’d likely target the two-mile Arkle.

2021 winner Appreciate It won the Supreme by half a track, going for the Champion Hurdle the following season only to be well beaten by the great Honeysuckle. After his only race of the season, Paul Townend opted to go chasing with Appreciate It, where he was stepped up to two miles four furlongs to compete in the Turners Novices’ Chase, now going for the Ryanair Chase at the 2024 Festival.

2022 winner Constitution Hill took on the Champion Hurdle the following year, but to the chagrin of many racing fans, Nicky Henderson has kept his charge over hurdles and he’s a massive favourite for back-to-back Champion Hurdle wins.

2023 Supreme winner Marine Nationale went chasing after his win, and he’ll be going for the Arkle in 2024.

The Arkle follows as the best two-mile novice chasers go head to head with the winner typically targeting the Champion Chase. Previous Arkle winners Shishkin and Edwardstone both came up well short in the Champion Chase with the former being pulled up and the latter finishing 64 lengths behind Energumene. 2023 winner El Fabiolo looks set to be declared in the Champion Chase, but the Ryanair remains a possibility.

The first handicap of the week is the Ultima Handicap Chase, run over three miles and won in consecutive years by Lucinda Russell’s Corach Rambler. While it's not a race for novices, it is one of the most notable races in the week for ante-post bettors. Winners are unlikely to be good enough to compete in a Gold Cup, but they may opt for the Grand National at Aintree.

Tuesday also sees the Mares’ Hurdle, contested over two-and-a-half miles. Won six times in a row by Quevega, the race has also been won by Honeysuckle, who then dropped to two miles to win the Champion Hurdle, signing off her Cheltenham career with another Mares’ Hurdle win, though the Mares are often of insufficient quality to win a Champion Hurdle, and typically stay with the Mares’ Hurdle. 

Wednesday

RaceDistanceObstacle
Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle2m5fHurdles
Brown Advisory Novices' Chase3mFences
Coral Cup2m5fHurdles
Champion Chase2mFences
Cross Country3m7fCross country
Grand Annual2m5fFences
Champion Bumper2m5fBumper

Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle (2m5f)
Potential target(s): Turners Novices’ Chase (2m4f), Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (3m)

Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (3m)
Potential target(s): Gold Cup (3m2f)

Champion Bumper (2m)
Potential target(s): Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2m)

Wednesday gets underway with the Baring Bingham (formerly Ballymore) Novices’ Hurdle, run over two-and-a-half miles. In years gone by, winners would often drop down to two miles and target the Champion Hurdle, but in recent years, Envoi Allen (2020 winner), Bob Olinger (2021 winner) and Sir Gerhard (2022 winner) have all stayed over two-and-a-half miles but gone chasing with hopes of a run at the Gold Cup, but typically starting with the Turners’ Novices Chase (2m4f) with the Ryanair Chase (2m5f) potentially coming the year after.

The Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase gives an early look at the following year’s potential Gold Cup contenders. 

Made up of staying chasers – who may have been staying hurdlers in previous campaigns – the race is contested over three miles – two furlongs shorter than the Gold Cup.

Wednesday closes with the Champion Bumper, a race in which Willie Mullins has trained 12 winners, including three of the last four.

A two-mile National Hunt Flat race, successful horses will typically aim for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2m), though the Baring Bingham (2m5f) is also a potential avenue.

Thursday

RaceDistanceObstacle
Turners Novices' Chase2m4fFences
Pertemps Final3mHurdles
Ryanair Chase2m5fFences
Stayers' Hurdle3mHurdles
Magners Plate Handicap Chase2m5fFences
Mares' Novices' Hurdle2m1fHurdles
Kim Muir Challenge Cup3m1fFences

Turners Novices’ Chase (2m4f)
Potential target(s): Ryanair Chase, Champion Chase, Gold Cup

Thursday gets underway with the Turners Novices’ Chase. Run over two-and-a-half miles, winners often have a number of options available, be it dropping in trip to two miles to take on the Champion Chase, stepping up in trip to take on the Gold Cup, or staying put and bidding for the Ryanair.

Recent winners have gone down a variety of paths: 2019 winner Defi Du Seuil went for the Champion Chase (2m), 2020 winner Samcro went for the Ryanair (2m5f), 2021 winner Chantry House went for the Gold Cup (3m2f), and 2022 winner Bob Olinger went back to hurdles.

The Mares’ Novices Hurdle also takes place on Thursday. A little over two miles, the Mares’ Hurdle is a common route for winners, with the likes of Limini, Concertista and Love Envoi all going that way the following season, though it’s worth noting, no winner of the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle has gone on to win the Mares’ Hurdle.

Friday

RaceDistanceObstacle
JCB Triumph Hurdle2m1fHurdles
County Handicap Hurdle2m1fHurdles
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle3mHurdles
Gold Cup3m2fFences
Foxhunter Chase3m2fFences
Mares' Chase2m4fFences
Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle2m4fHurdles

JCB Triumph Hurdle (2m1f)
Potential target(s): Champion Hurdle

Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (3m)
Potential target(s): Stayers’ Hurdle, Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase

Run over a little more than two miles, the race is exclusively open to juveniles (four years old) with a number of avenues open to winners. Defi Du Seuil missed the following year’s Festival but went chasing the year after; Vauban went for the Champion Hurdle, while Lossiemouth will likely swerve a contest with Constitution Hill and go for the Mares’ Hurdle.

The three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle is the third race on Friday and is a natural route to the Stayers’ Hurdle, though if a horse can handle the distance and seems more suited to fences, the Gold Cup is also an option down the line.

2017 winner Penhill won back-to-back Stayers’ Hurdles in 2018 and 2019, while Minella Indo went chasing, winning the Gold Cup two years after his Albert Bartlett success.

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