13 Mar 2023

Three cheers for Cheltenham

The British love affair with horses and horse-racing is well-established. The stately progression through the winter jump racing season and the summer flat racing season marks out the sporting and social calendar for many devotees and – whatever the time of year or nature of the event – is an intriguing mixture of many recognisable British traits: an enthusiasm for sporting competition; a passion for all things equestrian; a delight in opportunities to dress up and cut a dash; a pleasure in socialising and conviviality.

The three jewels in the crown of the National Hunt (or jump racing) season – which runs from mid-October to the end of April – are the King George VI chase at Kempton Park (26 December). The Cheltenham Festival (14–17 March) and the Grand National (15 April).

Jump races can be broadly divided into steeplechases and hurdle races. In steeplechases, run over distances from 2-4½ miles, horses must jump fixed fences, which are at least 4½ft high. In hurdle races, run over distances from 2-3½ miles, horses jump smaller, less rigid obstacles, at least 3½ft high, which often collapse when hit by a jumping horse.

The Cheltenham Festival is a feast of horseracing in March, featuring fourteen grade one races over four days and bringing the best horses, trainers and jockeys in the business together. The excitement is palpable, and the huge crowds are abuzz with anticipation as the festival launches – don’t miss the loud cheers from the crowd, known as the Cheltenham Roar, which ring out before the starter raises the tape for the first race of the festival.

The festival starts with Champions Day, which features the most important hurdles race of the season while Festival Wednesday features the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase – an invigorating spectacle of a two-mile dash over Cheltenham’s famous fences. This is also Ladies’ Day, and there are awards for the Best Dressed Lady, Best Accessories and Best Hat.

On St Patrick’s Thursday Cheltenham takes on a distinctly Irish flavour, focusing on the Ryanair Steeple Chase. The day is a celebration of all things Irish and a chance for Cheltenham’s famous Irish contingent to celebrate. The Cheltenham Festival Prestbury Cup is the competition between the English and Irish to see who will have the most winners overall throughout the festival. It has seen a great rivalry between the home team of British-trained runners and those that have crossed the Irish Sea to compete.

Friday, Gold Cup Day, is the culmination of the festival, and the highlight of the jump racing season; the title is universally coveted by jockeys and trainers alike. It is open to horses aged five and over and is also the most valuable non-handicap chase in Britain, offering a total prize fund of £625,000 in 2023. It was first run in 1924, with a prize of £685 for the winner. Six other races, including two more Grade 1 events and three fiercely competitive handicaps, make this a truly exciting race day.

Punter Protocol

• Before the races visit the parade ring, you can see the and watch the jockeys, trainers and owners discussing tactics before the jockeys mount their horses and are led out onto the racecourse.

• Look out for a good muscle tone, shiny coat, bright eyes, a relaxed walk. Avoid horses who are agitated or sweating profusely.

• Once the horses have left the parade ring, you’ll have about five minutes to place your bets. Look at the bookies’ boards and find the best value bets. Winnings can be collected at any time after the race, there is no time limit.

• After the race visit the Winners Enclosure. The first four horses to finish will return there, with the winner arriving last and the atmosphere is highly charged with excitement and celebration. You’ll be able to watch the trophy presentation before the next race.

Dress Codes

There is no strict dress code at Cheltenham. The weather is always unpredictable – balmy spring days frequently alternate with driving rain or freezing cold March winds, so the main priority is to ensure you are warm, dry and comfortably shod. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly possible to prioritise comfort and still look smart or striking, so now is the time to forego your battered all-weather gear and opt for a more coordinated and elegant appearance.

Ladies: Choose a cosy tweed or woollen coat, with a hat and complementary accessories, such as a warm cashmere scarf or wrap and matching bag. Stylish fedoras, trilbies, berets or faux fur hats are all good choices, and some striking feathers in the headband will add a touch of interest and glamour. However, hats are not de rigueur.

You can team your coat with a tweed skirt and long boots, or even a smart pair of jeans. Merino or cashmere layers under your coat will ensure that you don’t get chilled to the bone. Remember that you run the risk of getting bogged down in waterlogged ground, so opt for low or chunky heels, or classic flats.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will look more glamorous in scanty summery clothes – you will be freezing cold and shivering and goose bumps are never a good look. Save your summer dresses for the flat racing season and embrace winter chic.

Men: The key item is the coat – choose a well-tailored tweed coat or traditional covert coat, with a warm wool or cashmere scarf. Alternatively, you can opt for a tweed suit in rustic shades of brown, khaki or green, and layer up with a cosy fine knit or cashmere sweater. Choose smart boots or brogues and top off your outfit with a tweed flat cap or Baker Boy hat.

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