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The Cheltenham Festival is now the biggest horse racing meeting of the year in the UK. That’s why the four-day fixture in the second week in March brings together the best horse trained in Britain and Ireland.
There are 28 races during the festival, including championships races over hurdles and fences, the championship bumper and the most prestigious cross country race in the sport.
The meeting also stages some of the most competitive handicaps of the season. In 2005, the festival became a four day fixture and there have been hints a fifth day could be added to the festival.
This article looks at the early days of the festival, how it grew during the 1960’s and its development into the massive racing and sporting occasion it is today.
Racing at Cheltenham
Racing first took place at Cheltenham in 1815. It is ironic that the home of jumps racing’s first race was on the Flat.
The original venue was Nottingham Hill but three years later racing took place on Cleeve Hill which is close to the current track.
There was an appetite for horse racing in this part of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire.
The annual two-day meeting in July attracted crowds of 30,000. And the main feature was the Gold Cup which was then a Flat race over three miles.
And, the event was so popular that inevitably it attracted some disreputable characters. As a results, that situation became so bad that Cheltenham’s parish priest, Reverend Francis Close, preached about the evils of horse racing.
He had local support in his congregation who disrupted racing at Cheltenham in 1830.
Some of his followers and residents who disapproved of racing burnt down the grandstand before the July meeting the following year.
Rebirth for Cheltenham
The opposition to racing at Cleeve Hill led in 1831 to a move to Prestbury Park which is the venue for racing at Cheltenham and the festival today.
Then, nearby Andoversford first organised steeplechasing in 1834 and the sport moved to today’s venue in 1998.
However, there was an economic downturn in the 1840’s and the racing became much less popular. Although, in 1881 WA Baring Bingham bought Prestbury Park and realised there was an interest in racing in the area.
The festival was established and continued to grow over the next 80 years but the course did not have a certain future.
However, in 1964 the Racecourse Holdings Trust which is now Jockey Club Racecourses was formed and the future of Cheltenham racecourse was secured.
The stands did not change a great deal over the previous 30 years but there were changes to the buildings in the 1960’s and more recently in the last five years.
Cheltenham is now a modern sporting venue and has been voted the best racecourse in Britain.
WA Baring Bingham: Birth of the Cheltenham Festival
Cheltenham Festival history is linked to a key individual, called WA Baring Bingham. In the first half of the 19th century racing at Cheltenham declined.
It seemed that the best use for the land was farming but there was always a connection with horses. So, WA Baring Bingham bought Prestbury Park in 1881 and developed a stud farm.
However, it became apparent to the new owner that there was still plenty of interest in horse racing in the area.
Racing was again held at Cheltenham in 1898 when baring Bingham hosted a meeting.
After that, Interest grew over the next four years and a National Hunt Festival of sorts was established in 1902.
The National Hunt Chase was run at Prestbury Park for the first time two years later but only for two years.
The race moved to Cleeve Hill permanently in 1911 and this was a significant development.
At the time the Grand National was the only prestigious National Hunt on the calendar.
Early Days of the Festival
When the National Hunt Chase moved to Prestbury Park in 1911, the first Cheltenham festival took place.
A driving force behind the concept was Frederick Cathcart.
As a results, he became the Chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse in 1908 and was a major influence in the establishment of the National Hunt Chase at the track.
The management company of which Cathcart was a partner, developed Cheltenham as a national racecourse. Besides, the Gold Cup was established in 1924 and three years later the first champion hurdle was run.
After that, Cathcart passed away and the Cathcart Challenge cup became a fixture at the festival and it evolved into the Ryanair Chase at the festival today.
Growth of the Festival
Sporting occasions are defined by individuals and not fixtures and grandstands. An event gets full press coverage away from the sports pages when there is an exceptional set of circumstances.
For Cheltenham, the factor that led to national awareness was the record of Golden Miller in the Gold Cup.
The horse won the race five times from 1932 to 1936. In addition, Golden Miller won the Grand National in 1934. He is still the only horse to win the Gold Cup and National in the same year.
In 1948, Cottage Rake became the first horse trained in Ireland to win the Gold Cup. That win captured the imagination of jump racing fans in Ireland and an affinity with the festival was born.
Developments in the 1960’s
The modern Cheltenham Festival history most significant development was the purchase of Cheltenham Racecourse by the Racecourse Holdings Trust.
The group invested in the course to make it a safe venue and a secure future. Afterwards, BBC began to broadcast live racing from Cheltenham but another horse gave the track and festival another boost. Arkle won the Gold cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966.
The horse won 27 races in 34 starts and is honoured by the Arkle Chase, which is the second race on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival.
The meeting continued to gain popularity over the remainder of the 20th century. Then there were few developments at the track in terms of customer comfort but crowds flocked to the three-day meeting.
It was clear the infrastructure could not handle the numbers, especially when the Festival became a four day meeting in 2005.
Friday was added to the traditional Tuesday to Thursday meeting and the Gold Cup is now the fourth day highlight.
A new stand was opened in November 2015 and the track now has adequate facilities for the daily crowds of up to 65,000.
Cheltenham Festival Landmarks
Here is a summary of the key landmarks in Cheltenham Festival history:
- 1860 – The first National Hunt Chase.
- 1902 – Opening of a new racecourse at Prestbury Park.
- 1907 – A “Festival” was first mentioned in the Warwick Advertiser.
- 1912 – The first Stayers’ Hurdle.
- 1924 – Gold Cup was established.
- 1927 – Champion Hurdle first run.
- 1959 – Introduction of the Champion Chase.
- 1987 – Gee Armytage becomes the first female jockey to win a race.
- 2001 – Festival cancelled due to foot and mouth disease.
- 2005 – The meeting is extended to four days.
- 2008 – Second day does not take place due to high winds.
- 2019 – The opening day attendance is a record at 67,934.
- 2020 – 8000+ Gallons of tea and coffee served.
- 2021- Festival takes place behind closed doors, as Minella Indo wins the Gold Cup
The Major Races
There are four major championship races at the Cheltenham Festival. Besides, these are the features races on the four days and have the same race time.
They are currently the fourth race on each card, from Tuesday to Friday. The races are broadcast live on ITV, the host free-to-view broadcaster, and on a dedicated racing subscription channel.
Here is more information about these races:
- Day: Tuesday.
- Full Title: Unibet Champion Hurdle
- Distance: Two miles and one and a half furlongs
- Obstacles: 8 hurdles
- Weights: 11-02 four-year-olds, 11-10 five-year-olds and older, 7 ponds mares allowance.
Leading Horse five horses have won the Champion Hurdle three times:
- Hatton’s Grace (1949 to 1951)
- Sir Ken (1952 to 1954)
- Persian war (1968 to 1970)
- See You Then (1985 to 1987)
- Istabraq (1998 to 2000).
Nicky Henderson is the leading trainer with eight wins between 1985 and 2020.
Three jockeys have won the race four times:
- Time Molony from 1951 to 1954
- Ruby Walsh from 2011 to 2016
- Barry Geraghty from 2009 to 2020
- Day: Wednesday
- Full Title: Queen Mother Champion Chase
- Distance: Two miles
- Obstacles: 13 fences
- Weights: 11-10, 7 ponds mares allowance
Badsworth Boy with three wins in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Two Trainer have one the race five times: Tom Dreaper (1960 to 1970) and Nicky Henderson (1992 to 2019).
Pat Taaffe (1960 to 1970) and Barry Geraghty (2003 to 2013) with five wins.
- Day: Thursday
- Full Title: Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle
- Distance: Three miles
- Obstacles: Twelve hurdles
- Weights: 11-00 four-year-olds, 11-10 five-year-olds and older, 7 ponds mares allowance
Big Buck’s with four wins in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Paul Nicholls with four wins from 2009 to 2012.
Ruby Walsh with four wins from 2009 to 2012.
- Day: Friday
- Full Title: Cheltenham Gold Cup
- Distance: Three miles and two and a half furlongs.
- Obstacles: Twenty-two fences
- Weights: 11-08 five-year-olds, 11-10 six-year-olds and older, 7 ponds mares allowance
Golden Miller with five wins in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936.
Tom Dreaper with five wins from 1946 to 1968.
Pat Taaffe with four wins from 1964 to 1968.
Famous Races And Horses
Here are the some of the most famous races and horses in Cheltenham Festival history:
- 1912: Aftermath wins the first Stayers’ Hurdle.
- 1924: Red Splash wins the first Cheltenham Gold Cup.
- 1927: Blaris wins the first Champion Hurdle.
- 1934: Golden Miller wins the Gold Cup and then the Grand National.
- 1936: Golden Miller wins the Gold Cup for the fifth time.
- 1959: Quita Que wins the first Champion Chase.
- 1966: Arkle wins the Gold Cup for the third time.
- 1985: Badsworth Boy wins the Champion Chase for the third time.
- 1986: Dawn Run wins the Gold Cup: the only horse to also win the Champion Hurdle (1984).
- 2000: Best Mate wins the Gold Cup for the third time.
- 2009: Kauto Star wins the Gold Cup: the only horse to reclaim the race.
- 2012: Big Buck’s wins the Stayers’ Hurdle for the fourth time.
- 2020: Al Boum Photo wins his second consecutive Gold Cup; emulating the great Kauto Star
- 2021: Minella Indo wins Gold Cup, as Irish-trained horses finish 1-2-3-4
Today’s Cheltenham Festival
Here is a breakdown of the 28 races at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival:
- Grade 1: 14
- Grade 2: 3
- Grade 3 and Handicap: 7
- Listed: 1
- Amateur: 2
- Cross Country: 1
The following statistics and facts are now part of the Cheltenham Festival history:
- Prize money for the festival in 2020 was a record £4,5 million.
- The Magners Gold Cup is worth £625,000.
- There is 12,320 yards of running rail around the track
- The fences consist of 5,000 bundles of birch.
- Irish-trained horses have won the Gold cup 26 times.
- Ruby Walsh had most wins by a jockey at a single festival, seven in 2016.
- Quevaga won six mares’ hurdle races, a record for any one race.
- Races are run over two miles to three miles and six furlongs.
- Katie Walsh was the first female jockey to win a Grade 1 race in 2018.
- Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore won Grade 1 races in 2019.
- Rachel Blackmore won a Grade 1 race in 2020.
- Rachel Blackmore became the first female to finish at Top Jockey in 2021
Cheltenham Festival History Closing Comments
Cheltenham Festival history goes back to 1860 and the 2022 meeting will be possibly best-attended over those 160 years.
Media coverage, television viewing figures and attendances grow as the Cheltenham Festival goes from strength to strength. It is now the best race meeting in the world. The 2022 festival takes place from March 15 to March 18.