Millar's Method: The Old and the New - what you need to know about Cheltenham's two courses

14 February 2024

While most tracks in the UK have the ability to move running rails through the season to preserve ground, and Sandown has a vastly different hurdle track to chase track, Cheltenham is unique in having two entirely separate courses; the old course – used on Tuesday and Wednesday of the Festival and the new course used on the Thursday and Friday. In my opinion, understanding the differences in the two tracks is a prerequisite when trying to find those often-elusive Festival winners.

The old course is a sharper track, meaning the straights are shorter and that consequently horses spend more time on a turn. Because (relatively speaking) the field will go slower around a turn than they will on the straight, the old course can make it easier for jockeys to get a breather into their mount on the home turn, which can mean it’s a course where being ridden prominently is an advantage and conversely trying to come from off the pace is harder because the front runners don’t tire as quickly.

Additionally, the new course descends more slowly and travels across the Prestbury Park bowl meaning the home straight covers more distance and climbs uphill for longer, it’s self explanatory as to how this puts a premium on stamina and can mean that if a front runner is inefficient with its energy expenditure they can tire rapidly in the closing stages, races are more likely to change complexion late on over the new course and patiently ridden horses can often be seen to good effect due to a collapsing pace up front.

On the hurdles track there are just two hurdles inside the last seven-furlongs on the new course this can mean that the field often get racing from further out which again puts an emphasis on stamina over speed. We often reference how Triumph Hurdle winners (run on Friday over the new course) progress to be strong stayers later in their careers, and have a relatively poor record when contesting the Champion Hurdle (old course) indeed in the last twenty-five years only Kribensis (1988 and 1990) and Katchit (2007 and 2008) have landed the double. 

Of course some horses will prove adaptable across the two tracks; Gold Cup winners Best Mate (2002, 2003 and 2004) and Denman were both unfortunate not to win the Supreme Hurdle and Royal And Sun Alliance Hurdle (now Baring Bingham) on the old course before going on to achieve their career highs on the new course. 

Of course it would be completely unjust if when talking about adaptability between the two courses I did not reference the wonderful Coole Cody, a long-term friend of the SBK Betting Podcast. He simply loved Cheltenham and was able to show enough speed to win the 2020 Paddy Power Gold Cup on the old course, before going on to show incredible resilience and stamina when landing the 2021 December Gold Cup before enjoying his crowning moment when battling back to win the 2021 Festival Plate both of which were run on the more stamina sapping new course. 

Of course the best people to ask about the nuances of the two courses are those who ride it and those who prepare horses for it, the jockeys and trainers.

Three-time Festival winning rider Nick Scholfield told me: “I think it can be easier to ride a race on the new course because you do get slightly more time as from two out there is still a long way to go, but at the same time it is harder to ride a front-runner on the new course as you get pressured from a long way out, so you need a horse that has plenty of resilience. Whereas on the old course a front-runner is easier to ride as you’re always on the turn, so you can fill them up around the bends. But more importantly I think that whichever course you're on you should pay most attention to the attributes and needs of each individual horse and not get too focussed on the course.”

 Richard Hobson has a live contender for the 2024 RyanAir Chase in the form of Fugitif. Richard is very clear that the new course is the track most suited to his stable star. 

“Fugitif has plenty of stamina and finishes his races powerfully, he was second on his first run at Cheltenham over two-miles on the old course but it’s apparent to me that the stiffer new course suits him better. He’s a tall horse at well over 17.2hh and whilst he is well balanced I feel that the extra time he has to get organised before the first fence in the home straight on the new course is a big help to him, he can get rolling down the hill and run home strongly.”

Gaelic Warrior has been the subject of many conversations this season with many questioning whether he can act around Cheltenham given his tendency to jump out to his right. He bombed out badly at the Dublin Racing Festival so it might be that he doesn't make the Cheltenham Festival at all. 

If he does I think Willie Mullins and his connections face a tough decision. Personally I think his jumping to the right has been exaggerated, though I concede he did adjust to his right at Leopardstown before jumping drastically right when tiring; to me energy and pace is the nub of the issue, when you watch his races back he jumps straightest when being sent forward on long strides with ‘high revs’ and it’s when asked to go in short and ‘pop’ that he shifts right. When competing in eventing I was given this analogy by a coach to explain straightness: “if you can balance a riderless bike and then push it with sufficient force, it will travel on a straight trajectory until it starts to lose speed, that’s when it starts to wobble, left and right” (I hope this made sense to you – it served me well). 

So with regards to Gaelic Warrior there is a strong possibility that an aggressive ride over a shorter trip might see him jump straighter, but of course the Arkle is run on the old course where you are constantly on the turn, which is highly likely to encourage him to the right. Decisions, decisions Willie!

Finally, I want to leave you with the horse that I think will be best served by either of the two-courses. Maybe it’s recency bias but I’m growing more and more convinced that Shishkin is going to love the stamina test provided by the Gold Cup trip on the new course. Yes, he does have a patchy record in times, but I fail to think of any race he’s completed where his final furlongs were not his most impressive. Galopin Des Champs might well be impossible to beat but I firmly believe that Shishkin will force him to better last year's performance if he is to become a dual Gold Cup winner.  

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