03/09/2013 1:37PM

Cheltenham set for huge crowds at Tuesday opener


The attendance tells part of the story.

In the early 1980s, the National Hunt festival for steeplechasers at Cheltenham Racecourse in western England was run over three days and drew combined crowds of 70,000. In the current age, the event covers four days and draws more than 240,000.

No event is more widely anticipated on the steeplechase calendar, or has greater prestige. Interest is so high that Cheltenham resembles a cross between Breeders’ Cup weekend and the enthusiasm of opening day at Del Mar or Saratoga – spread over four days.

The festival begins Tuesday and continues through Friday. Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup program has sold out, with the track restricting capacity at 67,000 in a facility a little bigger than Arlington Park.

The weather will be harsh, with rain and snow possible and temperatures that, with luck, will get into the 40s. The crowds will still be there.

Hotels have been sold out for months. Admission prices for each race day range from $33 to $119. Betting handle, mostly through bookmakers in Britain and Ireland, is expected to reach $900 million.

The Grand National at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool in early April may provide the greatest spectacle in jump racing, but it is at Cheltenham, with its championship races and rich purses, where every owner, trainer and jockey strives to win.

One appeal of British steeplechasing is the recurring roles that leading horses have in top races year over year. Tuesday’s $600,000 Champion Hurdle over two miles drew the last three winners – Binocular (2010), Hurricane Fly (2011), and defending champion Rock On Ruby.

Hurricane Fly, trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins, was third in the 2012 Champion Hurdle and was the 7-4 favorite to win this year’s running with British bookmakers as of Saturday. A 9-year-old gelding, Hurricane Fly is unbeaten in three starts this season, winning by a combined 24 lengths.

The $825,000 Cheltenham Gold Cup over three and five-sixteenths miles is the richest of the 27 races.

Bobs Worth, who won his only start this season in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Dec. 1, was the 3-1 favorite as of Saturday. The Mullins-trained Sir des Champs is an interesting prospect at 4-1.

The most anticipated starter of the week is the two-mile chaser Sprinter Sacre, the 2-9 favorite to win Wednesday’s $525,000 Queen Mother Champion Chase. A 7-year-old gelding, Sprinter Sacre is unbeaten in seven starts over fences.