Cheltenham Festival is the highlight of the jump season, and has become something of a pilgrimage for racegoers and celebrities alike. This four day extravaganza always has top class racing from the very best of British and Irish trained horses. But this year’s racing looks set to be particularly exciting, with most of the big races wide open.
The ‘Festival’ can trace its roots back to 1860, when it was called the National Hunt race and held at Market Harbour. Over subsequent years the race became more popular and a larger venue was required. In 1904, Prestbury Park in Cheltenham was chosen to host the race, where it remained for two years after which racing transferred to Warwick. In 1910, following extensive ground improvements, racing returned to Cheltenham where it has remained ever since.
If you’re heading to Cheltenham for the first time, you may be intimidated by the sheer size and complexity of the event, so we’ve created this guide to help you get the most out of your visit.
Cheltenham is located in the heart of the Gloucestershire countryside and during the festival time the roads can get pretty clogged up. Fortunately, Cheltenham is well connected by rail, bus and air services.
From Scotland, the north-west, or if you’re landing in Holyhead from Dublin, take the M6 to junction 4 then head westbound on the M42 which merges with the M5. Exit the M5 at junction 10 heading towards Cheltenham.
If you’re travelling from the south-west, take the M5 northbound and exit at junction 10 heading towards Cheltenham.
From the south-east, take the M4 exiting at junction 15, then head northbound on the A419 which merges with the A417 at Cirencester. Exit the A417 at the Highwayman Inn and head northbound on the A435 until you reach Cheltenham.
From the north-east head southbound on the M1 until you reach junction 23A. Then join the A42 which merges with the M42 and then the M5. Exit the M5 at junction 10 heading towards Cheltenham.
If you must travel by car, make sure you allow plenty of time to get there. The roads around the racecourse get pretty jam-packed during race days.
Cheltenham Spa is served directly by trains from Birmingham and Bristol. Passengers travelling from London will need to change at Bristol Parkway Station. Trains leave every half hour from London Paddington to Bristol Parkway and the entire journey takes a little over two hours to reach Cheltenham.
If travelling from the north-west, Cross Country run direct trains from Manchester Piccadilly via Stoke-on-Trent.
From the south-east, Cross Country run trains direct from Paignton, Plymouth and Exeter St Davids via Bristol Parkway. The journey from Bristol Parkway takes approximately 35 minutes.
From the Midlands, take the Cross Country train from Birmingham New Street to Cheltenham Spa. The journey takes approximately 40 minutes.
From the north-east or Scotland, Cross Country run direct services from Edinburgh Waverley via Newcastle, York, Leeds and Sheffield.
On race days, regular bus services run every 15 mins from Cheltenham Spa to the racecourse. A return journey costs approximately £5.
Both Birmingham and Bristol airports are approximately an hour’s drive from the racecourse and have onward connections to Ireland, Scotland and the rest of the world. Train connections are available from Birmingham International Airport via Birmingham New Street. Passengers arriving at Bristol will need to transfer to Bristol Temple Meads for onward services to Cheltenham.
The Four Days of Cheltenham
Racing at Cheltenham is spread over four days; each day has one main race followed by a number of handicap races for punters to place bets on. Here’s a quick guide to the main races on each of the four days of Cheltenham. Don’t forget to check out our tipsters for the lowdown on the runners and riders for each race.
Day 1 – Champions Day
Champion Day starts the whole thing off. The big race on day one is the Champion Hurdle, but punters should also look out for the Arkle Trophy and the Supreme Novices Hurdle, which always offer close, exciting racing. Other races on day one include the Festival Handicap Chase, David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, National Hunt Chase and the Novices Handicap Chase.
Day 2 – Ladies Day
The main race on day two, or ‘Ladies Day’, is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Other races to keep a look out for are the Neptune Novices Hurdle for long distance runners and the Champion Bumper, which is fast becoming one of the most exciting races on the Cheltenham calendar. Other races on day two include the RSA Chase, Coral Cup, Cross Country Chase and the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdles.
Day 3 – St Patricks Thursday
Day three is St Patrick’s Day and always draws a large crowd of Irishmen in good voice. The main race on day three is the Stayers Hurdle, closely followed by the Ryanair Chase. The Stayers Hurdle is a good race to place your first bet, because the favorite nearly always wins due to a lack of good quality long distance hurdlers in the field. Other races on day three include the JLT Novices Chase, Pertemps Final Hurdle, Festival Plate, Mares Novices Hurdle and the Kim Muir Challenge Cup.
Day 4 – Cheltenham Gold Cup Day
The final day is Gold Cup Day, which is one of the highlights of the National Hunt season. But don’t forget the Triumph Hurdle, which offers punters a chance to see the next generation of horses. Other races on the final day include the County Handicap Hurdle, the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle, Foxhunter Steeple Chase, Conditional Jockeys Hurdle and the Grand Annual Chase.
Essential Course Facts
Cheltenham has excellent disabled visitor access, with facilities situated around the course and paddock. Each of the viewing areas also has its own dedicated facilities. Disabled viewing areas are available from the balcony of the Centaur Building which has specially lowered rails, beside the paddock opposite the weighing room and by the running rail outside the Mandarin Foyer.
The Tattersalls enclosure has a dedicated disabled viewing area on the running rails opposite the Tattersalls Arena and on the level 2 terrace outside the Winged Ox Bar. The Best Mate enclosure has a dedicated disabled viewing platform in the Best Mate stand on Level 2.
Public toilets are available throughout the course, with most of them having disabled access. In the main grandstand, toilets are located outside all the main function rooms on all five levels, close to the lifts. Other toilet locations include the Istabraq Bar, under the Hall of Fame stairs, the main foyer of the Centaur Building and both levels of the Best Mate Stand.
Note: To access these toilets, you will need a Radar Key which is available from the stewards located outside the toilet areas.
Toilets with enlarged cubicles are also available in the Mandarin Bar, the Gold Cup Foyer, Hurdlers Hall and Tote Terrace. Portable toilets are available in the Best Mate enclosure behind the main marquee, the Guinness Village, the Keith Prowse facility, the Needhams Boxes and the Long Run Boxes. Unisex toilets are also available at the Horseshoe pavilion Restaurant.
Parking is available in various locations around the racecourse. Car parks are colour coded and visitors should follow the colour coded signs to their respective car parks. Drivers are advised NOT to follow Sat Nav instructions.
Disabled drivers should display a blue badge and follow the disabled signs to the dedicated disabled car park.
Red – the red car park is reserved for annual members, RCA trainers, RCA owners, RCA press badge holders, ROA members and horseboxes.
Blue – the blue car park is reserved for PJA members, owners and trainers.
Yellow – the yellow car park is reserved for annual and Cheltenham Club members along with Hall of Fame car park pass owners and bookmakers.
Green – the green car park is for public and pre-paid admission for the Club, Tattersalls and Best Mate enclosures.
Bus/Coach Parking – Dedicated parking is available for buses and coaches with more than 15 seats. Buses and coaches should follow the Red car park signs. If dropping off or picking up only, drivers should follow the pink signs.
Food and Drink
Food and refreshment are all part of the Cheltenham experience but racegoers are advised that no food or drink is allowed to be brought on to the premises. Bag searches are in operation and any food or drink items will be confiscated before admittance. If you require certain foods for medical purposes, you should contact the racecourse directly here.
There are a number of restaurants on site which cater for parties of all sizes. It is advised that you pre-book restaurant places to avoid disappointment. If you have a specific request or would like to book a table, please call the racecourse direct on 01242 537 653.
What better way to enjoy the Festival than to spend it with friends in your own private box? Each box comes with breathtaking views of the course and its own catering service. Packages are available for groups of between 10 and 30 guests and include morning coffee, a four-course meal or finger buffet, followed by afternoon tea.
Bars and Food
Cheltenham is famous for its collection of mobile catering units which include tasty favourites such as fish and chips, burgers, hot dogs, hog roasts, sandwiches and doughnuts. Many of these outlets can also cater for those with special dietary requirements such as gluten intolerance and food allergies.
A number of pop-up bars are also available across the course and paddock area, which offer a range of traditional draught beers and ciders along with tea, coffee, cold drinks and deli sandwiches. Please note that some bars are reserved for racecourse members only.
While at Cheltenham, you will, of course, require money to place a bet. Fortunately, cash machines are available throughout the racecourse, with permanent cash points located in the entrance of the Centaur Building, the Hall of Fame Building and the Best Mate Enclosure. During the Festival, additional machines are installed throughout the paddock area.
Can You Take Photographs?
In line with most modern sporting events, photography on the racecourse is restricted. You are not allowed to bring any professional style photography or filming equipment on to the racecourse unless you have been expressly permitted to do so.
You are allowed to take small point and shoot cameras and smartphones on to the course, but you may only use these to take photographs for your own personal use.
Photographs of the racing surface are strictly forbidden and flash photography is banned throughout the racecourse, including the paddock area. This is to prevent the horses from being spooked by the flash. If you are caught taking unauthorised photographs, you may be asked to leave.
Are Dogs Allowed?
Dogs are not allowed on the premises unless they are an accredited guide dog or assistance dog. Such dogs will have been issued with a UK assistance dog ID book.
Is Smoking or Drinking Allowed?
Any person between the ages of 16 and 17 is permitted to drink alcohol on the premises, as long as it has been bought by an adult. Anyone over the age of 18 is free to purchase and consume alcohol. No alcohol is allowed to be brought on to the racecourse from outside.
In line with the Health Act of 2006, smoking is NOT permitted in any buildings or designated non-smoking areas. The use of vapour cigarettes is also NOT permitted in these areas. You are free to smoke or use vapour cigarettes in all open areas.
Cheltenham offers racegoers a huge variety of bars, restaurants, viewing areas and enclosures for both private and corporate entertainment purposes. The three main enclosure are:
Club – the most prestigious enclosure and offers racegoers extensive views of the racecourse from the Tattersalls grandstand. Racegoers with a Club day badge also have access to the Club Enclosure, the Paddock, unsaddling enclosure, the Hall of Fame and the Centaur building.
Food and refreshment is available in the Gold Cup and Festival restaurants. Guests also have access to the tented village which is where all the action happens pre-race. Club day badge holders also gain access to the members lawn in front of the main grandstand, the Guinness Village which offers extra viewing platforms, a bar (obviously), along with bands and other live entertainment.
Tattersalls – doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Club but you do gain access to the Tattersalls grandstand which offers incredible uninterrupted views of the course. You also gain access to the tented village, the parade ring, and the unsaddling enclosure. Tattersalls badge holders also have access to the Festival and Gold Cup restaurants and the Vestey Bar on the ground floor.
The Best Mate Enclosure – provides racegoers with a great view of the course from the Best Mate grandstand, along with access to a range of bars and food outlets. Betting is also available in the enclosure which sits directly opposite the main stand. Once the racing is over, entertainment is usually provided in the form of live music from one of the country’s leading ‘cover’ bands.
The Centaur – a separate facility which is only accessible to guests with a Club or Tattersalls day pass. It provides seating for up to 1,000 people, a large screen to watch the action as it unfolds, along with access to the totepool to place bets. There is also live music after the last race of the day to help racegoers unwind.
Racegoers are free to wear whatever they like, but be advised that racing takes place in the winter months and the weather can be pretty cold. So racegoers are advised to wear something practical and warm. Fancy dress is permitted, as long as the outfit is not deemed to be offensive. The course reserves the right to refuse access if it is deemed necessary.
Ladies may prefer to wear a hat, especially on Ladies Day, while gentlemen may prefer to wear a jacket or suit while in the Club Enclosure and restaurants, but neither is compulsory. The only rule that is enforced is the banning of fancy dress in the Club Enclosure on Gold Cup Day.
On Course Betting
There are three ways to place a bet at the racecourse: on the Tote, in the betting ring or in one of the onsite Betfred betting shops.
The Tote – Totepool betting points are located throughout the racecourse and paddock. Most of the main grandstands and hospitality areas have them, including the Club Enclosure, Best Mate Enclosure and Guinness Village.
For a complete guide to using Totepool betting points, check out this video.
The Betting Ring – the old school way of placing a bet and most serious punters won’t use any other method. There are two betting rings at Cheltenham; one in front of the Tattersalls grandstand and another in front of the Best Mate grandstand.
If you’ve never bet with a live bookmaker before, simply state the number of your chosen horse along with the amount and type of bet you wish to make. “Number 33, £10 to win”. The bookmaker should repeat the bet back to you, simply confirm the bet and hand over your stake. He will then give you a betting slip which you should check for accuracy. Keep the slip safe, as you will need it to collect your winnings.
Betfred Betting Shops – if you don’t fancy the betting ring, you can use one of the onsite Betfred betting shops which offer the same range of bets as on the high street. You can even use these to bet on races away from Cheltenham or upcoming football matches. Betfred shops are located near the Parade Ring, close to the Centaur Building and in the Best Mate Enclosure.
Not sure which horse to back? Check out our tipsters page for an inside look at the runners for every race.
Visiting Cheltenham is not as expensive as you may think. During Festival Week, ticket prices range from £45 to £90 on Champion Day, Ladies Day and St Patrick’s Thursday. Prices increase on Gold Cup Day to between £65 and £110. That is incredible value when compared to what it costs to visit Ascot on Ladies Day for example.
Better deals can be made if you purchase your tickets early. Those purchasing tickets before 11th March can save £5 on Festival Week prices. You can find a list of prices and book tickets on the Jockey Club website.
So that concludes our guide to Cheltenham Festival. If you’re visiting Cheltenham for the first time you are in for a treat. You’ll witness what has been variously described as the greatest show on turf. The racing is second to none, the atmosphere is intoxicating and the experience unforgettable.