Is there a more anticipated date in the horse racing calendar than the Cheltenham Festival? Four days of outstanding racing is only improved by the carnival atmosphere at what is truly one of the great sporting events of any calendar year. In 2011, the Cheltenham Festival celebrates its centenary in spectacular style, starting with four themed days of racing which are sure to whet the appetite of punters from across the world. Further, there are many Cheltenham betting opportunities to make this year’s festival the best ever.
The festival kicks off on Tuesday 15th March with Centenary Day, where those fortunate enough to be in attendance can celebrate the hundred-year heritage of the festival with free bowler hats, a commemorative race card as well as being entertained with live music from the London Ragtime Orchestra. Racing highlight of the day is the Champion Hurdle, where BBC Sports Personality of the Year AP McCoy and his mount Binocular will attempt to become a double winner of the race; possibly the first since Hardy Eustace achieved the feat in 2004 and 2005. Binocular will face stern opposition over the fences this time from Hurricane Fly and Menorah, while in an interesting development; Oscar Whisky has been well backed of late in ante-post markets.
The second day of the Cheltenham Festival is Ladies Day and it is the chance for the fairer sex to have their day in the limelight. Although in a similar vein to Ladies Day at Ascot, Cheltenham’s emphasis is definitely on the fun factor and this gives the whole day a more congenial and entertaining lean. The big race of the day is the Queen Mother Champion Chase and it was the Irish ladies who were smiling the most as Big Zeb, ridden by Barry Geraghty, landed the victory last year.
The Champion Chase looks like being one of the most keenly contested meets of the entire meeting, though with stern competition for last year’s winner coming in the shape of Master Minded, currently a 9/4 favourite chiefly due to better current form than Big Zeb and the fact that Master Minded won this very race in 2008 and 2009. Although these two horses dominate the betting at present, Somersby was just beaten by Master Minded at Ascot earlier this year, and he should push both favourites hard.
The third day of Cheltenham will see the course decked out in emerald green as the course celebrates its long affinity with the Irish via its St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Live music from Irish band Hothouse Flowers, Irish dancing and a St Patrick’s Day parade all form part of everything Irish and the Guinness will no doubt flow freely throughout the day. Highlight of the racing day is the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, which promises to be another outstanding contest.
Most of the excitement will be surrounding odds-on favourite Big Bucks. It certainly is an appropriate name for the Paul Nicholls-trained horse as it has won the race in both 2009 and 2010, meaning that if Ruby Walsh can work his magic with his mount once again this year, it could be a memorable treble for one of the best-backed favourites of the entire meeting. Do not expect Big Bucks to have things all its own way; Grand Crus is expected to push him very hard while Mourad is expected to feature prominently too.
The final day of the Cheltenham Festival means only one thing: the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It is the biggest day of the jump racing season and one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the racing year and as befits a centenary event, the 2011 Gold Cup is lining up to be a truly special event.
The proposed line up for the race includes no less than three previous winners, each a name that will be regarded by future generations as one of the premier horses of its generation. Imperial Commander, last year’s winner, will start as favourite for the race and will be seeking a second victory. Kauto Star can already lay claim to that particular milestone and will be another heavily backed entry, while the famous 2008 winner Denman will also have his backers in the markets.
The Gold Cup, however, will not be a three horse race. Three emerging stars could make the final shake up interesting, in particular the well-backed Long Run promises much, while Diamond Harry and the Paul Nicholls-trained What a Friend promise to make the 2011 race one of the most memorable and a fitting end to what promises to be a spectacular Cheltenham Festival.