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The Cheltenham Festival, England

Away at the races.

Golden Miller. Looks Like Trouble. Red Splash. These aren’t the names of action movie heroes or comic book characters, but of horses that have won the coveted Gold Cup at Cheltenham Racecourse during its annual springtime festival. These three, along with many other equine all-stars, are commemorated with great plaques and bronze statues dotted around the grounds, and yet another victor will soon be added to that honour roll at the close of this year’s festivities.

The track hosts 16 days of National Hunt racing every year in England’s scenic Cotswolds region. “All the best racehorses in the U.K. and Ireland come here in March, and the one thing they want is to have a winner at the festival,” says the Jockey Club’s Ian Renton, who runs Cheltenham Racecourse, which is the largest and most prestigious horse jumping track in the world. “I’d also like to bring more competition over from the U.S., France, and other parts of Europe,” he adds. Still, there is no lack of talent vying for purses on race days when the energy runs high.

Cheltenham Racecourse is the largest and most prestigious horse jumping track in the world.

At this year’s four-day festival, running from March 13 to 16, the Gold Cup prize totals £625,000 ($1.05-million Canadian) and the 260,000 spectators in attendance will be placing bets with both bookies and official stations set up all over the course. Staffers proudly note that the festival serves up more hospitality—food and beverages—than Wimbledon, and the crowd of serious betters, champagne-popping revellers, and everything in-between is expected to consume about 20,000 bottles of house bubbly. In fact, an entire kilometre at the course is set up with temporary bars to serve the thirsty flocks, and a strict “best of British” approach is taken with the cuisine. The chefs work up to eight months in advance placing their orders with local butchers and farmers. They also take into consideration special requests, including for the Royal Box, whose menu must be sent to Kensington Palace for pre-approval. (The main request? Nothing with strong odours, like garlic or onion, as they must speak to people all day long.)

Members of the royal family will be in attendance this year, including Princess Anne and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall—possibly the Queen herself. And while their Royal Box may be the ultimate viewing platform, Cheltenham’s picturesque 350 acres offer no bad views. Peering out over the track to the left, you’ll spot the legendary Ellenborough Park hotel, a Mr & Mrs Smith–endorsed property with a spectacular history, making it the place to stay when attending the races. Previously an all-girls school, the 500-year-old building was transformed into a luxury property that opened in 2011, with owners so fiercely private that their identities are a secret. Some suspect equestrian royalty and, if so, the proprietors are likely to be in residence during all the major races. Others had best be prepared to add their name to a lengthy waiting list—the Ellenborough is fully booked for the 2018 festival, and guests who have stayed with them since the hotel opened have first refusal on rooms for the following year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup race days.


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