Grosvenor Sport Harry Skelton

Harry Skelton’s Cheltenham Festival Guide: Old Course v New Course

The Cheltenham Festival, especially the Gold Cup, is one of the biggest annual events on the sporting calendar and I can’t wait to get back there once again in March.

Cheltenham is a unique course and what people don’t realise is how different the two tracks are and the different challenges they can throw at you.

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Racing on the Old Course

The Old Course, which we race over on the first two days of the Cheltenham Festival, is much sharper than the New Course which is used on the Thursday and Friday.

Things can get very tight on the Old Course, particularly over hurdles, and you really need to be on a good traveller. It’s very difficult to come from too far off the pace turning into the home straight.

It’s so competitive during Cheltenham Festival races that you can jump the second last with 10 or 12 all having a genuine chance of winning. You need a lot of luck coming down the hill with so many horses around you and it can be hard to find space.

Racing on the New Course

You have a bit more time on the New Course –  there are only two hurdles in the last seven furlongs – and if things don’t go quite to plan in the early part of the race you can get back into it because it’s much more of a galloping track. You need to stay on this course, it’s a long way home turning in but you can be off the pace and let things unfold. I definitely prefer the New Course.

You always need to have your wits about you at Cheltenham. Over hurdles it can be helpful for a horse to have a rail to race against, but it can also work against you if you try to bag the rail. You can easily get blocked behind other horses, so it’s important to always look at what’s going on and try to follow a horse that’s travelling well.

Over fences things still happen faster on the Old Course so you’ve got to be balanced. On the New Course you’ve got more time, although four out can be quite a tricky fence as it’s on the bend. You can’t be indecisive there; you have to stick to what you’re doing otherwise you’ll end up on the floor.

Of course, all jockeys and trainers talk about tactics before a race but I’m very lucky that I rarely get told to ride in a certain way. For us jockeys, we have to do what we feel is best at the time. It goes without saying that we all make mistakes but we’re always trying to do the right thing and it’s often about feeling. Things can change very quickly in a Cheltenham Festival race, so you’ve got to be adaptable to what’s going on around you.

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