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Britain and Ireland Set to Clash in the Cotswolds

The ‘Greatest Show On Turf’ is now just a month away. On March 13, equine elite from Britain and Ireland will gather at Prestbury Park on the outskirts of the beautiful Regency Spa town of Cheltenham, to contest the four-day spectacular known simply as The Festival.

Since 1911, jump racing’s Olympics has returned to the glorious natural amphitheatre at the foot of Cleeve Hill. The annual event has soared in popularity, last year attracting more than 250,000 racegoers over the four days.

There’s a showpiece contest on each day of the meeting, known as a championship race. The Stayers' Hurdle, first ran in 1912, is the oldest of the four. It takes place on Thursday, the thirdday of the meeting. The Champion Hurdle is the showpiece on the opening day (Tuesday) and was first run in 1927. The Queen Mother Champion Chase was established in 1959 and takes place on the Wednesday. The highlight of the week, meanwhile, is the Cheltenham GoldCup, which was first run in 1924 and takes centre stage on the concluding day of the Festival (Friday).

The Cotswolds is a hotbed for the British jump racing industry. Many of the nation’s leading trainers are based here, including Cheltenham regulars Jonjo O’Neill, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Kim Bailey and relative newcomer Ben Pauling.

In recent years, two UK handlers have played a vital role in flying the flag in the face of a progressively strong Irish invasion. Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson regularly top the Trainers’ Championship and bring a power-packed team to the Festival. Henderson has leading contenders for many of the major events, while his young chaser Might Bite is the favourite here for the Gold Cup.

Nevertheless, the Irish raiders have become a dominant force, led by their champion trainer, Willie Mullins, and ably assisted by County Meath’s Gordon Elliott. Irish handlers accounted for 15 of the 28 winners in 2016, but that rose to a staggering 19 at last year’s gathering. In 2014, the Prestbury Cup was awarded to trainers and jockeys from the winning ‘team’. This new initiative has grown in popularity and thousands of racegoers crossing the Irish Sea will be hoping for a repeat of last year’s rout.

The Cheltenham Festival is so much more than simply a gathering of horses, trainers, owners,jockeys and racing fans. It has become a phenomenon, having a huge impact on the local economy. It becomes nigh impossible to find bed and breakfast accommodation throughout Gloucestershire as March 13 approaches. Restaurants and public houses in the town and throughout the Cotswolds thrive during ‘Festival Week’. Trains, bus companies and taxi firmsall benefit hugely from the thousands that flock to the county; whilst on the racecourse, the ‘Shopping Village’ has become a popular destination for those wishing to purchase gifts, from art and clothing to food and drink.

As one would expect, this is also one of the betting industries most important events in the sporting calendar. Second only to the Grand National for revenue, the industry has offers galore to tempt new customers, and punters from all parts of Britain and Ireland are keen to oblige. Those that are yet to make the pilgrimage to Cheltenham in March must not hesitate. This is arguably Britain’s greatest sporting event.

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