03/08/2018 6:38PM

Record prize money for Cheltenham four-day stand


The Cheltenham festival for chasers and hurdlers cannot arrive soon enough in western England this week.

After brutal winter weather in the last month that led to days of canceled races, temperatures have finally risen. Still, track crews removed approximately 200 tons of snow from the course in recent weeks.

About 260,000 people are expected to descend on the small town of Cheltenham, 100 miles west of London, for four days of racing Tuesday through Friday, even though rain is forecast each day.

While the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool on April 14 may be the world’s most famous steeplechase, Cheltenham has a higher quality of racing over four days, accompanied by a backstory of whether any given race will go to the best chasers and hurdlers from England or Ireland.

The racing is tough, with distances ranging from two to four miles. The wet weather will lead to soft or heavy turf conditions. Throw in an uphill finish, and stamina will be in demand.

This year, prize money for the 28 races has reached a record $6.38 million, a gain of 7 percent from last year. There are 23 graded stakes, including seven Grade 1 races, five of which are worth $450,000 or more.

There are familiar names among the leading contenders for several Grade 1 races.

The week’s richest race is Friday’s $868,750 Cheltenham Gold Cup at 3 5/16 miles over 22 fences. The race lost a leading candidate on Thursday when 2017 winner Sizing John was withdrawn because of hairline fracture in a pelvis.   His absences leaves Might Bite and Native River as leading contenders.   Might Bite, trained in England by Nicky Henderson, has won five consecutive races, though he has a history of misbehaving during races. At the 2017 festival, Might Bite led at the last fence of the Grade 1 RSA Novices’ Chase, but idled in the run to the wire and won by a nose.   Might Bite, the 4-1 favorite in the Gold Cup future book, showed a similar trait in the Grade 1 King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Dec. 26, but prevailed by a length under a determined ride from jockey Nico de Boinville.

On Tuesday, Buveur d’Air will be heavily favored to win the $556,000 Champion Hurdle at 2 1/16 miles for the second consecutive year. Trained by Henderson, Buveur d’Air was 5-1 in 2017. A 7-year-old gelding, Buveur d’Air will be about 1-2 this year in a weaker running of the Champion Hurdle than in recent years.

On Wednesday, the Henderson-trained Altior will be around 4-5 to extend his 12-race winning streak in the $556,000 Queen Mother Champion Chase at two miles. Altior is unbeaten in three career starts at Cheltenham, including the Grade 1 Arkle Chase for novices at two miles last year.

An 8-year-old gelding, Altior underwent a throat operation to improve his breathing last fall. He won his only subsequent start against two rivals in a Grade 2 chase at two miles at Newbury Racecourse on Feb. 10.

Thursday’s $486,500 Ryanair Chase at 2 5/8 miles should be competitive. Un de Sceaux, a 10-year-old gelding trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins, was 9-4 in the future book as of Thursday to win the race for the second consecutive year. 

Supasundae, who won the minor Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham last year, is favored to win Thursday’s $451,750 Stayers’ Hurdle at three miles, a slight choice over Sam Spinner, a Grade 1 winner at Ascot in December.