The sport of horse racing runs for almost 365 days a year with literally thousands of races taking place. However, some of those are far more important than others and often form part of a festival – a group of races run over a number of days at a particular track. Here we look at the biggest and best racing festivals on the UK calendar.
Probably the daddy of them all, the Cheltenham Festival sees huge crowds – and plenty of betting action – over four days of the highest calibre racing. No single race awards prize money to match the highest in National Hunt racing – the Grand National – but the overall quality of racing and standard of horses at the meeting is far higher. There are around 27 races, with about 13 of those being Grade 1, with a massive feature race each day that offers horses the chance to etch their names in the history books and the hearts and minds of punters.
Next chronologically is the Grand National and whilst many members of the public know it solely for the feature race, first contested in 1839, racing takes place at Aintree on Thursday and Friday as well as the Saturday of the big race. The winner of the National itself scoops almost £1m, making the race the richest over jumps in Europe and with other high class renewals the meeting is hard to match, with its unique Scouse-flavoured atmosphere.
The 1000 and 2000 Guineas are two of the biggest horse races in the UK. They both held at Newmarket racecourse and take place in late April or early May. Both races have been running since early 19th century, which makes them two of the oldest and now, most prestigious races in the world.
They are also both run over 1mile, with the only difference in the races is that the 1,000 is only open to that of fillies whereas the 2,000 is open colts and fillies. Both race are Group 1 flat races and the £500,000 prize pool that they both command make them two of the richest flat races in the UK.
York racecourse open their flat season of racing with the Dante Festival, a three day fixture which runs from Wednesday to Friday in mid-May. Amongst the five Group contest are the Duke Of York Stakes on Wednesday, the Dante Stakes itself on Thursday and the long distance Yorkshire Cup on Friday. There is a total of £1.2 million in prize money available across the 21 races with the Dante topping the list at £165,000.
The Derby itself, held on the second day of the Epsom festival is the richest and probably most prestigious race in British racing. A flat sprint of just over a mile and a half it was first held in 1780 and continues to captivate. With the Oaks run the day prior you have two of the five Classics of flat racing at one meeting and with the high class Coronation Cup also contested you are sure to witness some majestic action.
Taking place later in the month this is the most prestigious festival in flat racing and was founded by Queen Anne back in 1711. The Queen attends every year, arriving with members of her family in a horse-drawn carriage, and Royal Ascot is a huge event on the social calendar for many. With five days of racing and 16 Group races, including at least one Group 1 race every day, the festival is a treat for fans of the Sport of Kings, with the Gold Cup on day three the major highlight.
Not quite as glamorous as some of the listed festivals, this one is hotly anticipated by many aficionados. The garden party atmosphere, strong identity and emphasis on fashion make the festival a real joy, whilst the Darley July Cup, a Group 1 sprint, and a host of classy Group 2s make for some excellent betting.
This five day meeting is a real highlight, with a stunning setting and a great range of races offering something for everything. The two Group 1s, the prestigious Sussex Stakes and the Nassau Stakes, are the highlights, but with other notable Group 2s, such as the five furlong sprint of the King George Stakes there is plenty of top notch action.
Held at York, the Ebor is known as the “Ascot of the North” and with good reason. The festival is a wonderful mix of high class racing and high class socialising, with the Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes the highlight of the four day festival. Coming at the end of the flat season it is the last chance to see racing’s stars and with two other Group 1s and plenty of Group 2s a trip to York is a must.
Another great festival in Northern England is at Doncaster, with the showpiece being the St Leger itself, the oldest Classic in the world, dating back to 1776. The final Classic of the year sees colts and fillies compete together, the length of the race – one mile, six furlongs and 132 yards – further differentiating it from the other (shorter) Classics. Four days of great racing and brilliant fun are assured at Doncaster’s ultra-modern course.
Racing returns to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile in late September with their three day Cambridgeshire meeting which packs in a total of 22 races. The headline act is the Cambridgeshire Handicap, a 1m 1f contest first run back in 1839. This takes place on the Saturday along with two 6f Group 1s in the Cheveley Park Stakes and the Middle Park Stakes. Both are for two-year-old horses, the former for fillies and the latter for colts.
There are few more stylish and luxurious horse racing meetings in the world than the Arc. The meeting is held in the first weekend of October in Paris and last just two days. Over the course of those days, there are 7 Group 1 races run at the world-famous, Longchamp Racecourse.
The highlight of the meeting is that of the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, a Group 1 race that has been running since 1920. With a massive prize pool of £5million, it’s the richest turf flat race in the world and is the highlight of this showcase weekend for racing fanatics all over the world.
Ascot Racecourse plays host to the QIPCO Champions Day and is one of the highlights of the flat racing season, coming right at the end, often capping off what is usually an enthralling season. The meeting is unique in that it last just one day, but it well attended and includes the largest prize pool of any meeting within the UK of £4.2 million, such is the prestige of the event.
The races are split into 5 categories, which include the Sprint Mile, Mile, Middle Distance, Long Distance and Fillies & Mares, showcasing the best horses over the year within each of those disciplines.
The Breeders’ Cup is one of the biggest horse racing meetings in the world and takes place in varying locations across America. What’s unique about the meeting is that each of the races run across the two-day meeting have a prize pol in excess of $1 million, with the richest being that of the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, bringing to total prize money to over $30 million.
Whilst most meetings have some sort of stable home where they are run at each year, the Breeder’s Cup is able to move about locations across America, including tracks such as Churchill downs, Santa Anita Park, Belmont Park and Hollywood Park, to name just a few.
The November Meeting is an annual horse racing event held at Cheltenham Racecourse. The meeting was more commonly referred to as the Cheltenham Open, before changing it’s official title in 2017 as part of a re-brand for the event.
The meeting is actually of great importance to racing within the UK as it signifies the official start of the jump season. The meeting is run over 3 days and with each offer a wide range of top races, including the Gold Cup, Novices’ chase and the Handicap Hurdle.
For those wanting to clear the Christmas hangover a trip to Kempton on Boxing Day is a great way to do it. The centrepiece of the two day festival is the King George VI Chase, won four times by Desert Orchid and an astonishing five times by Kauto Star. There are a total of three Grade 1 races, making the Christmas Festival the mid-season highlight of the National Hunt calendar.