Cheltenham - At The Races

The myth of the Cheltenham Hill

    Leading racing writer Kevin Blake examines how stiff the famous Cheltenham Hill actually is.

Such is the sheer level of build-up and discussion that the Cheltenham Festival generates these days, it is inevitable that no shortage of false truths, shaky theories and hyperbole will be passed around as fact, particularly at the Cheltenham preview nights that are now such a prominent part of the road to the Festival.

One of the more prevalent exaggerated truths that always does the rounds is that of the “Cheltenham Hill”.

Almost every horse is analysed in the context of whether they will “get up the hill”. So much emphasis is put on this variable that anyone who has never been to Cheltenham might think that facing this hill was akin to being asked to gallop up the side of Mount Everest!

However, the reality is a long way removed from the myth. Indeed, using Google Earth, the following estimates of the finishing climb at high-profile Irish National Hunt tracks have been gathered.

At Navan, the rise in the four-furlong straight is 10 metres. If one starts from the bottom of the hill at the turn out of the backstraight, the climb over the six furlongs from there to the winning post comes in at 17 metres.

At Leopardstown, the rise from the beginning of the straight to the winning post (two-and-a-half furlongs furlongs) is eight metres. Starting from the middle of the backstraight, it rises 15 metres over the six furlongs to the winning post.

How do these compare to the punishing climb up what is reputedly the biggest hill in equine sports?

You may be surprised to read that on the old track at Cheltenham, the straight rises just eight metres over the final two-and-a-quarter furlongs and on the new track, it rises 10 metres over the home straight of just under three furlongs.

Unlike at Leopardstown and Navan where the climb begins long before the home straight, Cheltenham has a long downhill approach to the straight of three furlongs on both tracks.

Thus, while the final climb at Cheltenham can be fairly described as stiff, the notion that it is anything more than that in the context of other tracks in British and Ireland is a myth.

While the Cheltenham Hill’s reputation may be more intimidating than its topography, that isn’t to say that races run at the Cheltenham Festival are not unusually testing in nature.

The atmosphere, expectations and pressure associated with a meeting coupled with what tend to be big competitive fields and a sounder surface than has been raced on in the preceding months can all combine to produce races that are run at an unusual tempo.

The early pace is often above average and races tend to start to develop further from home which combined with the stiff finish makes for quite a specialist test that some horses will inevitably be better suited to than others.

Indeed, this is the reason why I feel previous Cheltenham Festival form should be rated very highly by form students that are seeking winners next week.

Course form and course and distance form are all well and good, but Cheltenham Festival form should be given a notably greater value. If a horse has shown that they can perform to their very best in the unique set of circumstances that this meeting presents, the chances of them doing so again should be clear.

In terms of a betting angle, this can be particularly valuable in the case of a horse that not just acts in such circumstances, but performs better in them than in any other set of circumstances.

Such horses are unlikely to have shone as brightly as they can in their prep races for Cheltenham and can often be underestimated back in their ideal circumstances by a betting market that is so often driven by recency bias.

There are obvious horses that fit such a bill for next week, but there will be plenty of less obvious ones at bigger prices, particularly in the handicaps, that form study will reveal.