Cheltenham Trials Day
Cheltenham Racecourse is most famous as the home of the world’s biggest and best jumps meeting. It is not all about the four-day Cheltenham Festival in March though, with the Prestbury Park venue playing host to several excellent meetings throughout the season.
October’s fixture represents the start of the jumps season for many, whilst November’s Open Meeting is one of the major winter highlights. Then in January a whole host of Festival hopefuls head to the Gloucestershire venue for Cheltenham Trials Day.
Taking place on the final Saturday in January, this single-day fixture is hugely popular with National Hunt fans and represents Cheltenham’s last day of action before the big one in March. An excellent atmosphere is all but guaranteed here, with the combination of great value entry prices, and equine superstars invariably seeing the stands packed to the rafters.
Here we take a closer look at the pick of the seven races on offer, highlight a few useful betting pointers, and delve into the history of the event.
Cheltenham Trials Day – Main Races
Cotswold Chase – Grade 2 – 3m1½f
Introduced as the Tote Double Chase, and later known as the Timeform Hall of Fame Chase, the Cotswold Chase regular draws a field of runners with Gold Cup aspirations. Held over a distance of 3m1½f of the New Course, this stamina-sapping contest provides ideal preparation for the most prestigious contest in the sport.
Class and staying power are the order of the day in an event which boasts an illustrious roll of honour, including Gold Cup Winners Little Owl, Master Oats, See More Business, Looks Like Trouble and Native River, and Grand National heroes Neptune Collonges and Many Clouds.
Cleeve Hurdle – Grade 2 – 3m
Named in honour of the nearby Cleeve Hill, this 3m hurdle event acts as a final stepping stone towards the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Initially, a Listed class contest, the race was run as a Grade 1 between 1991 and 2003 before being downgraded to its current Grade 2 status.
Regardless of the classification, the race continues to attract a Grade 1 calibre of performer. All-time great Big Buck’s is a dual winner of the event, whilst the hugely popular Paisley Park became the second three-time winner of the race when bagging successive editions between 2019 and 2022.
JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial – Grade 2 – 2m1f
Officially titled the Finesse Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle, this event is open only to four year old novice hurdlers. Speed over the obstacles is the name of the game in this contest, with eight hurdles standing between the competitors and glory.
The opening contest on Day 4 of the Cheltenham Festival is the ultimate target for many of the inexperienced youngsters who line up in this, but not many winners have gone on to do the double. Katchit achieved that feat in 2007 before going on to Champion Hurdle glory in 2008, whilst 2017 winner Defi Du Seuil bagged not only that season’s Triumph Hurdle but also the JLT Novices Chase in 2019.
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 2– 2m4½f
Another event for the inexperienced hurdlers, this race is open to all novices aged four years and older and serves as the last major trial for the similarly named event on Day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival. An extended two and a half miles is the trip, with 10 hurdles to be safely negotiated.
One of the newer additions to the Trials Day card, the race has proved a happy hunting ground for both Alan King and Nicky Henderson. It is Henderson who is responsible for the clear standout name on the roll of honour, with his 2011 winner Bobs Worth going on to win the RSA Chase in 2012 and the Gold Cup in 2013.
Cheltenham Trophy Handicap Chase – Grade 3 – 2m4½f
The big handicap on the card sees the chasers tackle 2m4½f and 17 fences of the new course. First run in 1993, the contest has benefited from a range of sponsors including Murphy’s, Crest Nicholson, and Ladbrokes.
Steadily increasing in quality over the years, the race gained Listed status in 2002, before being upgraded into the Grade 3 category in 2004. Despite the competitive nature of the event, this race is no stranger to repeat winners, with The Sawyer and Annacotty landing back-to-back editions, and Wishful Thinking winning in 2011 and 2014. Best of all though was 2008 winner Papillon who went on to a famous Grand National success under Ruby Walsh in 2000.
Cheltenham Trials Day – Betting Pointers
The expansive layout at Cheltenham encompasses two distinct courses: the Old Course and the New Course. The Cheltenham Festival in March splits the action between the two tracks, with the first two days taking place on the Old Course, and Days 3 and 4 utilising the New Course. On Trials Day, however, it is the New Course which is used for all seven races, making the meeting a particularly useful guide for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup.
Left-handed and galloping, with demanding undulating sections – including a 4f uphill climb to the line – Cheltenham is no place for the faint-hearted. Whatever the trip, look to side with runners who truly stay the distance, giving preference to long-striding gallopers over smaller nippier sorts.
Front runners tend to go well over 2m4½f, both over hurdles and fences. Conversely, those who like to be held up, or race just off the pace, have an excellent record in contests over the minimum trip of two miles, as frontrunners regularly kick for home too soon, only to be undone by the hill.
Other trends and factors worth considering when picking out those bets include:
- Look out for runners from the yards of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson in the Cotswold Chase.
- Nicky Henderson and Alan King each boast an excellent record in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial.
- Runners aged seven, eight and nine have much the best record in the Cotswold Chase.
- Alan King and Nicky Henderson won eight of the first 16 editions of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle between them.
- 34 of the first 36 editions of the Cleeve Hurdle were won by a runner aged nine or younger.
Cheltenham Trials Day – A Brief History
Be it over the jumps, or on the flat, a programme of trial races has naturally evolved for the majority of the season’s major events. And so, it is with the Cheltenham Festival, with preparation and qualifier races taking place throughout the early stages of the jumps season.
Trials Day itself wasn’t introduced in its entirety but has rather evolved and expanded over time. The Cotswold Chase was the first onto the scene, making its debut in 1980. 1981 winner Little Owl was the first to rubberstamp the race’s status as a Gold Cup Trial when going on to win the big one in March of that year.
The Cleeve Hurdle came next in 1983. Initially held over a trip of 2m5f 110y, the race soon became a stepping-stone towards the Stayers’ Hurdle. The first winner to go on to Cheltenham Festival success was 1994 victor, Flakey Dove, although not in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but rather the Champion Hurdle. In more recent times, Inglis Driver, Big Bucks, Thistlecrack and Paisley Park have landed both this race and the major event for the staying hurdlers at the March showpiece.
The JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial was added to the roster in 1985. Officially titled the Finesse Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle, the race took a little longer to produce a winner of note; 1999 champ Hors La Loi followed up in that year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, before bagging the Champion Hurdle in 2002.
The inaugural running of the meeting major handicap of the Cheltenham Trophy Handicap Chase came in 1993. This race tends to attract a mix of runners targeting a handicap contest at the Cheltenham Festival, and those with their eye on bigger prizes. Notable winners include Papillon (1998) who won the 2000 Grand National, Frodon (2018) who grabbed Ryanair Chase glory in 2019, and Siruh Du Lac (2019) who followed up in that year’s Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at the Cheltenham Festival.
Last but not least came the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle which made its debut in 2005. Officially titled the Classic Novices’ Hurdle, as of 2022 no runner had yet gone on to win the similarly titled event at the Cheltenham Festival. However, Wichita Lineman (2007) won both the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle in 2007, and the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase in 2009 under one of Sir AP McCoy’s most iconic rides. It was also in this race that Bobs Worth (2011) first announced himself on the big stage – Nicky Henderson’s pocket rocket going on to four career Grade 1 wins, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2013.
Trials Day continues to be immensely popular, both as a quality card in its own right, and as a source of handy pointers ahead of the biggest and best jumps festival of the year.
For fans of the National Hunt game, this is a meeting not to be missed.