In the UK and Ireland, November is a curious month for horse racing. In other countries, there are blue-chip events like the Breeders’ Cup Festival and Melbourne Cup, which tend to represent a fitting climax of the horse racing season. But in the British Isles, things go a little differently.
The flat season traditionally ends in late October, with Champions Day at Ascot representing a brilliant signing-off fixture. In its place comes the national hunt – or jumps – season, which will run until April. While jumps racing is not limited to events in the UK and Ireland, those two nations do it better than anyone else. It’s a uniquely attractive spectacle that delivers some of the most underrated sporting action on the planet.
The key to understanding the national hunt season is to factor in that it is structured in such a way that it builds up ahead of steam over the months. The focus is on two main events in the spring, the Cheltenham Festival (March) and the Aintree Grand National Festival (April). There are plenty of big races and festivals between now and then, but there is an increasing propensity to view the early part of the season as preparation for the payoff in the new year.
Not everyone is happy with that fact, as some believe the focus on Cheltenham, in particular, acts to dilute the prestige of some big races. But for the casual fan, it adds an exciting narrative to follow as the action unfolds.
All Roads Lead to Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Festival is, of course, one of the biggest events for horse racing betting in the UK. And part of our reasoning here is that so much of the action you see over the winter months is viewed through that lens. For example, in one of the big races of the early part of this season, the Charlie Hull Chase, we saw Bravemansgame triumph.
In the aftermath of the race, the horse had his odds cut for the crown jewel event of Cheltenham 2023 – the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Ante-post betting plays a huge role in the lead-up to the festival, and it’s part of the strategy for punters to take chances on what they see over the winter.
Of course, not everything is focused on Cheltenham or Aintree. There are numerous events over the winter that boast their own history and prestige.
Indeed, one of the best times for national hunt racing is over the Christmas period, particularly Boxing Day (26th December). The iconic King George VI Chase is run on that day, as is the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle. We’d also cite the Hennesy Gold Cup (November), Fighting Fifth Hurdle (December), Clarence House Chase (January), and Ascot Chase (February) as events worth catching.
We mentioned that national hunt racing is popular in both the UK and Ireland, and it is worth pointing out how it provides an extra dimension. While Ireland has its own brilliant fixture list (Punchestown in April is a big highlight), there is also a lot of overlap between the two industries.
In the simplest terms, the Irish contingent will come to the UK in a bid to lift the big prizes, something they have been doing with great success in recent years. This creates a friendly – but fierce – rivalry between trainers and owners from the two countries.
In the end, though, it becomes hard to ignore that all roads lead to the two big festivals in spring. Even today when winter is not yet fully upon us, you’ll find articles and podcasts contextualizing what the results mean for Cheltenham and Aintree next year.
For fans and punters, it creates a sense of journey, with each race along the way providing something of a signpost towards the payoff in spring. The action is unrelenting, with fans braving the cold and wind on December nights in Ayrshire and the snow in January mornings in Kempton. They wouldn’t have it any other way.