Mastering Cheltenham: Expert Strategies for Picking Festival Winners

Adrian Wall
Mastering Cheltenham: Expert Strategies for Picking Festival Winners

How to pick a winner at the Cheltenham Festival

The biggest week of the National Hunt Racing season takes place at Cheltenham in the middle of March. The best horses from Ireland go over the Irish Sea and take on the best the British have to offer. For punters, winners at Cheltenham are that much more satisfying than at any other meeting. 

The handicaps are so tough to work out and the races are so competitive. That’s why we’ve done this guide to help you beat the bookies and find out how to pick a winner at the Cheltenham Festival.

Keep an eye on the weather and the ground

Ground conditions play a huge factor in the outcome of horse races and the Cheltenham Festival is no different. Continuous rain leading up to the week can mean the meeting can start on quite soft ground. It’s also worth noting that the ground can often start officially described as good to soft, but gets changed after the first race or two as it's worse than was initially thought. 

Because the festival lasts four days, the conditions can also change from one day to the next, so just because it is soft on Tuesday, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be soft on Friday. So keep an eye on the ground as well as the forecast and study the horses accordingly for each day.

Previous course form can be vital

Having run at the course before can provide extremely valuable experience for a horse, and if they’ve won there before then that’s even better. Cheltenham has a relatively steep hill in the home straight and that can catch some horses out, so if they’ve done it before and thrive for it, then it’s a huge factor to consider.

There are actually two courses at Cheltenham - the Old Course and the New Course. The Old Course is used on Tuesday and Wednesday of the festival, with the New Course used on Thursday and Friday. The former is sharper while the latter has a longer straight which places a greater emphasis on stamina, so that’s worth bearing in mind when looking at which course a horse has previously run on at Cheltenham.

Take note of jockey bookings

Some trainers, particularly the big guns of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, will often have more than one horse in any given race. Obviously, one jockey can only ride one horse. Both of those stables for example have a number 1 stable jockey (Paul Townend and Jack Kennedy respectively), so looking at which horse they are riding is particularly important. 

They will often (not always) get a choice of which horse to ride, so they are obviously going to pick the one they think has the best chance of winning. So even if this doesn’t look like the obvious one from that stable at first glance, the horse may well be improving at the right time and it can be telling when the stable jockey has chosen it.

Past trends can provide crucial pointers

Trends aren’t everyone’s favourite angle when looking at a race, after all, every race is different. But history has a tendency to repeat itself and while no two races are the same, previous results can provide useful nuggets of information to help find a winner to this year's renewal. These can be things like the age of horses to win, their most recent finishing position, official rating/weight they are carrying or how many previous races they have run in. 

There are also a number of trial races leading up to festival week, so the winners or placed horses of these races can also be significant. Trials Day at Cheltenham for example at the end of January has provided some significant pointers to the festival handicap races in recent years. Another good example is the Pertemps Final, as 6 of the last 8 winners ran in the qualifier at Leopardstown over Christmas.

Watch for trainers targeting races

Due to the prize money on offer and the prestige of the races at the Cheltenham Festival, horses are often targeted at specific races. This can result in them slightly underperforming in prior races, so they can reach their peak for their intended target at Cheltenham. 

Trainers will have their favourite races and tracks for getting their horses the best prep run possible, so looking at a trainer's previous winners of a Cheltenham race and where they ran prior can give some very informative clues. In terms of trainers targeting races, some good examples are Gordon Elliott having trained the winner of 6 of the last 7 editions of the Cross Country Chase and Willie Mullins has had 4 of the last 6 Champion Bumper winners (had the second in the other two years).

How to bet on the Cheltenham Festival

There are several different ways that you can place a bet on the Cheltenham Festival, whether online or offline. What is a day at the Cheltenham Festival without having a bet? Cash may be used to place bets with the Tote and all on-course bookmakers at Cheltenham Racecourse if you are going to attend the festival. However, online is the place to be these days and we advise you to start betting online with our recommended bookmakers.

Cheltenham Festival free bets are very important in March and we recommend online betting as the very best way to bet on the big festival. All you have to do is sign up to one of our many bookmakers mentioned on this page and bet away to your heart’s content. It really is that simple and it is the fastest way to bet too.