Cheltenham Festival: Jump racing showpiece on wettest ground in 36 years

Robbie Power kisses the Gold cup after victory on Sizing John during Gold Cup Day of the Cheltenham Festival
Cheltenham Festival
Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse Date: 13-16 March
Coverage: Full coverage on BBC Radio 5 live; continued on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; live text updates on BBC Sport website

The Cheltenham Festival, jump racing’s annual showpiece, starts on Tuesday on the wettest ground for 36 years.

The going at the Gloucestershire track is officially described as heavy, soft in places after rain in the build-up.

More than 250,000 spectators are expected over four days with bookmakers estimating up to £350m will be wagered.

Buveur D’Air, for the meeting’s all-time leading trainer Nicky Henderson, will attempt to defend his Champion Hurdle title on day one.

Henderson also has Altior – the favourite for Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase – and Might Bite, a big hope for the Gold Cup on Friday.

Hundreds of horses will compete in a total of 28 races for record prize money totalling £4.6m during the meeting.

Festival fever

Racing fans have been counting down the days to the Festival, with the Monday before the meeting even described as ‘Cheltenham Eve’.

The event is characterised by its high-quality contests and the atmosphere generated by bumper crowds, which include thousands travelling over from Ireland.

Dozens of preview nights have been held at which punters pay to hear the views of experts attempting to predict the winners.

Buveur D’Air has been a popular selection, with a question mark over whether Faugheen can return to the form of his 2015 triumph for Irish trainer Willie Mullins.

My Tent Or Yours – three times a runner-up in the race – is owned, like the favourite, by JP McManus and seeks to go one better.

Rachael Robbins riding Faugheen for trainer Willie Mullins on the gallops at Cheltenham

Weather dominates Festival build-up

Cheltenham is often seen to herald the start of spring, but there has been about 45mm of rain and snow at the track in the 10 days leading up to the Festival.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse is confident there is no risk to racing going ahead.

“Unless something completely untoward happens then there is no question of the meeting being in any doubt whatsoever,” he said.

“The track has come out of it well and looks very good.”

A mixture of showers and dry spells are forecast for the rest of the week at the track, which is set against a beautiful Cotswolds backdrop.

Jockey Patrick Mullins, the son of trainer Willie, told BBC Sport: “You’ll need a different set of attributes than usual. The cruising speed you need round here might not be as important.

“Some horses prefer the sun on the back rather than the wet and the muck – a bit like a cross-country runner compared with a track runner.

“It will probably mean a safer Festival. Falls will be softer. And I’m sure jockeys will be responsible and pull horses up when they are tired.”

Cheltenham in numbers


BBC racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght

No Festival has started with conditions this rain-soaked since 1982.

That means the usual thing of looking for those horses who can be expected to excel with the arrival of the usual ‘better’ springtime ground at Cheltenham is out of the window.

However, after a wet season, it may mean the formbook is more reliable.

The week’s headline horses are mainly accomplished on soft ground, though perceived wisdom is Might Bite, whose stamina will be tested further than it has been before in the Gold Cup, could be vulnerable on soft.

What happens when on Tuesday?

(All times GMT, distances in miles and furlongs)

13:30: Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 2m ½f

14:10: Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Steeple Chase 2m

14:50: Ultima Handicap Steeple Chase 3m 1f

15:30: Unibet Champion Hurdle 2m ½f

16:10: OLBG Mares’ Hurdle Race 2m 4f

16:50: National Hunt Steeple Chase Challenge Cup (amateur and novices) 4m

17:30: Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase 4m

Tips – selections from the BBC Radio 5 live team

Commentator John Hunt: 17:30 Barney Dwan (8-1)

Barney Dwan has looked a class act from day one, is in excellent fettle judged in his Musselburgh win last month and can give local trainer Fergal O’Brien a memorable win.

Reporter Gina Harding: 14:10 Saint Calvados (5-2)

Footpad has looked foot perfect over fences and will no doubt prove a formidable opponent. However with the rain arriving, and the talent shown by the improving Saint Calvados, it could be worth taking a chance on him landing a first Festival win for his trainer Harry Whittington at bigger odds.

Aidan Coleman riding Saint Calvados clear the last to win The Betfred Mobile Novices' Limited Handicap Chase at Newbury

Jockey Andrew Thornton: 14:50 Coo Star Sivola (5-1)

I fancy Coo Star Sivola, with Lizzie Kelly on board. He has course form and his last run upped in trip at Exeter was impressive. He only gets a 6lb penalty for that win.

Jockey Lizzie Kelly: 14:50 Coo Star Sivola (5-1)

It would be wrong to not pick my own ride Coo Star Sivola. He’s sure to like the trip and ground. I’m very excited to be riding him in this race I think it’s my best chance of a winner this week.

What are the other highlights on day one?

Months of anticipation climax with ‘the roar’ as punters cheer the runners at the start of the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

The Festival’s all-time leading jockey Ruby Walsh, who only returned on Thursday after nearly four months out with a broken leg, rides Getabird for Mullins.

Kalashnikov represents Britain’s youngest trainer Amy Murphy, who has her first runner at the meeting at the age of 26.

Mullins and Walsh combine with Footpad in the Arkle Chase on a day which has previously yielded such dividends for the jockey that it earned the nickname ‘Ruby Tuesday’.

It is their compatriot Gordon Elliott, top Festival trainer for the first time last year, who saddles the Mares’ Hurdle favourite in Apple’s Jade.

What is the weather forecast?

BBC Radio 5 live weather forecaster Simon King

After Monday’s heavy rain, I suspect the course will be pretty soggy.

For the start of the racing on Tuesday, it’s looking much drier with the prospect even of a few bright spells breaking through the cloud.

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