Ever popular Cheltenham — still a Festival like no other

Back in the early 1990s, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed had his colours carried to victory by two Champion Hurdle winners in the space of just three years.

J A McGrath

The flat racehorses in Britain and Ireland take a back seat this week as the famous National Hunt Festival is played out over four days at Cheltenham in the Cotswolds. 

The popularity of this meeting — and jump racing in general — is extraordinary in the northern hemisphere, and Europe in particular.

As this year’s Classic contenders continue working steadily at home toward their first major targets of the flat season, the hurdlers and steeplechasers have their most glorious moments under the spotlight.

The first day’s feature, the Champion Hurdle, run over two miles and half a furlong, has a long history, dominated by slick, fast jumpers, who can keep up a strong gallop for well over a circuit of the sharp, hilly track at Prestbury Park.

Back in the early 1990s, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed had his colours carried to victory by two Champion Hurdle winners in the space of just three years.

Kribensis, trained by Sir Michael Stoute at Newmarket, won the 1990 Champion Hurdle with stylish Richard Dunwoody in the saddle, and two years later, Royal Gait, trained by James Fanshawe, took the hurdling crown under a determined Graham McCourt.

Both carried the famous maroon and white colours that Sheikh Mohammed recently passed on to his daughter Sheikha Al Jalila.

The week’s most prestigious race is the Gold Cup, run over three miles, two and a half furlongs on Friday. This has the hallmarks of an epic running of the feature, with Native River and Might Bite expected to fight out the finish in conditions that could well be bordering on heavy.