The History of The Cheltenham Festival
Racing in the Cheltenham area dates back 200 years to 1815 when the first recorded flat racing meeting was held on Nottingham Hill.
The Early Years (1818 – 1911)
The first races were a tentative affair of which little is recorded and it was a further three years before another meeting was staged, this time on Cleeve Hill which overlooks the current Cheltenham racecourse site. This one-day meeting took place on Tuesday 25th August 1818, including five races and Cheltenham’s first recorded winner, was Mr. E.Jones’ five-year-old bay mare, Miss Tidmarsh.
The Cleeve Hill meeting was evidently a success because the following year saw the construction of a grandstand on the side of the hill which was said to be visible from the Promenade. A proper course was laid on on the West Down of the hill and for 1819 the meeting was increased to three days duration (23-25 August). The main attraction of the final afternoon was the first-ever Cheltenham Gold Cup, a three-mile flat-race for three-year-olds, won by Spectre.
The races on Cleeve Hill soared in popularity over the next decade with crowds of up to 50,000 attending an annual two day July meeting. During this period the races became the central feature of a carnival, in town and on the hill – the elite was attracted to extravagant parties staged in Cheltenham, a fashionable spa town, whilst on the hill sideshows and drinking and gambling booths catered for the masses.
Inevitably the races began to attract some unwelcome elements such as pickpockets, drunkards, cards sharps and prostitutes and further to the ultra-evangelistic Anglican Rector of Cheltenham, Reverend Francis Close, preaching about the evils of horse racing and gambling, such strong feelings were aroused amongst his congregation that the meeting in 1829 was disrupted, with bottles and rocks thrown at the horses and their top jockeys. Before the following year’s meeting, Close was the instigator of an arson attack in which the facilities were burnt to the ground!
As a result, the following year races were moved to Prestbury Park in “three fields” for flat racing around a roughly drawn course, with a 700-capacity grandstand erected. Prestbury Park was first used for racing on 19th July 1831 where it continued until 1834, but the turf was not as good as on the hill and in 1835 the races returned to Cleeve Hill where a new three-story stand had been built and access to the course improved. However, in part due to an economic depression, the glory days of the Cheltenham flat races were over as numbers dwindled and the glamour that initially surrounded it evaporated. The standard of racing on the hill deteriorated and even the renaming of the races in 1840 as the “County of Gloucester Races on Cleeve Hill Course” failed to stop the decline – from 1843 to 1850 there was no flat racing at all and after a brief revival between 1851-1855, there were no further meetings on the hill.
However, just as interest in flat racing diminished, steeplechasing began to become more popular. In 1834 in nearby Andoversford, the first Grand Annual Steeplechase was run over four miles on the open countryside surrounding the town. The race, on Friday 4th April 1834, attracted a field of nine runners and watched by a crowd of around 10,000 that placed their Cheltenham free bets with vigor. Unusually for a steeplechase at this time, the race could be seen in its entirety from the winning field and was won by Fungleman, despite falling at the last fence! In second was Conrad whose effort was particularly noteworthy as the previous day he’d won two races on the Flat over the Prestbury Park course.
Predating the Grand National by two years, the Grand Annual is the oldest race in the jumping calendar and in subsequent years the races were run at various courses including Andoversford, Southam and in 1847 at Prestbury Park in a race won by William Holman on Stanmore with William Archer finishing second on Daddy Longlegs. The race continued to be held in Prestbury Park until the land was sold in 1853 (for £19,600). The new owner was totally opposed to racing and would not have it on his land.
As the century drew to a close racing of all kinds was losing popularity and Cheltenham races seemed destined to die a quiet death, but in 1881 Prestbury Park was sold to Cheltenham Racecourse founder, Mr. W.A Baring Bingham, a racing enthusiast who wanted to revive its former glories. However, at first, he used the Park as a stud farm and it was not until 1898 that a race meeting was held there with a modicum of success, re-establishing racing at its current location.
Four years later Prestbury Park held its first National Hunt Festival (9-10 April 1902).
The Cheltenham Festival was originally the National Hunt Meeting – the meeting that staged the National Hunt Chase, the four-miler for amateur riders. This race was first run in 1860 at Market Harborough and regularly changed venue. Held at Prestbury Park in 1904 and 1905 it finally settled there in 1911, where it has remained ever since. As it was the second most prestigious prize in the National Hunt calendar, after the Grand National, the March meeting at which it was run assumed permanent importance from that year.
The Cheltenham Festival
Frederick Cathcart is the man who did more than anyone else to make Cheltenham the headquarters of jump racing. Cathcart was a senior partner of Messrs Pratt & Co, the firm in charge of managing several racecourses including Prestbury Park.
He was to become the most influential racecourse official of the 20th century and guided the fortunes of Cheltenham as both clerk of the course and the founding chairman of The Steeplechase Company (Cheltenham) Ltd.
Cathcart decided that just as Newmarket was for flat racing, so Cheltenham should be established as the headquarters of National Hunt racing.
The first Cheltenham Festival took place at Prestbury Park in 1911 when The National Hunt Committee agreed to terms with The Steeplechase Company to allow the National Hunt Meeting to remain year-on-year at Cheltenham rather than continue its traditional annual tour.
That year the very wet weather spoilt the enjoyment of the huge crowd for the two-day fixture and the going proved exceptionally heavy.
The four-mile National Hunt Steeplechase on the first day, Wednesday, had prize-money of £815 and was won by Sir Halbert by a neck at odds of 33/1. The three-and-a-quarter-mile National Hunt Steeplechase the following day (the forerunner of the Gold Cup) was worth £832 and was raced in heavy hail and sleet. It was won by Autocar at odds of 100/6.
A new stand had been built in that first Festival year of 1911 and a “Luncheon and Private View to Press and Officials” was given on the course beforehand presided over by Cathcart. That little stand, so small and quaint by the standards of Cheltenham today, was to see service for the next 70 years!
The Early Days
Under Cathcart’s direction, the meeting grew significantly in importance and, such was the popularity of the occasion, it was expanded from two days to three in 1923. The following year saw the introduction of a level weight extended three-mile steeplechase, called The Cheltenham Gold Cup followed, in 1927, by The Champion Hurdle.
Frederick Cathcart died in 1934, aged 74. His Sporting Life obituary stated: “He was indefatigable in his efforts to increase the popularity and public appeal of the race meetings with which he was associated…Much of the success of the ‘chasing at Cheltenham was due to Mr. Cathcart’s energy and enterprise.”
All the NH Meetings needed to be was a star to project its appeal to a wider audience who bought Cheltenham tickets in hordes. Golden Miller more than filled that vacancy, winning The Gold Cup five times in the 1930s to become the sport’s first household name.
The first of these wins came in 1932 at just five years old. Better was to follow in 1934, when still at just seven years of age he won both the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same season – a feat that has never been equaled before or since. His sequence of Gold Cup victories (from 1932-1936) may have been even better had it not been for the 1937 renewal being lost to the weather. He was retired in 1939 with a record of 28 wins from 52 races.
The Post-War Years
The bounce-back following the Second World War came in the form of Cottage Rake, the first Gold Cup winner to be trained in Ireland, who went on to win three and, with Vincent O’Brien at the helm, sparking the Irish invasion that has become the hallmark of the Festival. Timing is everything in sport and three ingredients came together in the 1960s to launch The Festival into the modern era.
The racecourse was bought by Johnny Henderson, the late father of trainer Nicky Henderson, and his city friends to form Racecourse Holdings Trust. This prompted a massive investment, the BBC embracing racing as a key element of its outside broadcast agenda and a horse without parallel carrying all before him.
It is over 40 years since Arkle won three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups, but his achievements have stood the test of time and at 212 his Timeform rating is the highest ever awarded to a steeplechaser. Only Flyingbolt, also trained by Tom Dreaper, had a rating anywhere near his at 210. The third highest is Kauto Star & Mill House on 191. Such was his class that when running in handicaps, he was forced to give away huge amounts of weight – yet still managed to come home in front. In his 34 races under rules, he carried at least 12 stones in 23 of them but finished with a career total of 27 victories.
Cheltenham is where true National Hunt champions prove themselves and Arkle was no exception, fittingly making his (winning) chasing debut there in November 1963. He was back for the Festival the following March where he won what is today known as the RSA Chase. The Gold Cup itself was that year won by Mill House and the subsequent rivalry between him and Arkle, billed as a clash between England and Ireland, became one of the most famous of all-time.
When the pair first met in the Hennessy the following season, Mill House prevailed but Arkle had his revenge at Cheltenham in the 1964 Gold Cup. His success in the following two years saw him established as a legend at the course, where he is honored with a special statue.
The Modern Era
The event has continued to gain prominence within the racing calendar both from an entertainment perspective as well as on the betting tips forefront. And it is now widely recognized as one of the UK’s premier sporting events, alongside the likes of Wimbledon, the British Open, the British Grand Prix and the FA Cup Final.
The Dickinson Famous Five and Dawn Run landing the Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double catapulted The Festival to the front of the nation’s consciousness in the 1980s, a decade that climaxed with Desert Orchid triumphing in conditions that only Cheltenham can muster. Istabraq and then Best Mate brought another generation to claim The Festival as their very own before Kauto Star became the first Cheltenham Gold Cup Champion ever to regain the title in 2009.
The Festival is the county’s biggest single revenue-earning event, generating an estimated £50m for local hotels, shops, pubs, and clubs.
2005 saw the first four-day Festival with six races on each day. A new 3m7f Cross Country Chase was added to Tuesday’s card, which still features the Champion Hurdle. Wednesday’s highlight is still the Queen Mother Champion Chase, while the World (Stayers) Hurdle is now the highlight of Thursday’s card. Friday is now Gold Cup day with the Triumph Hurdle, Foxhunters and County Hurdle still also appearing on the final afternoon. The first four-day Festival was undoubtedly a huge success and the format was retained in 2006 and looks set to stay.
The build-up to Cheltenham now dominates the entire jumps season, with every decent race run after the turn of the year being seen as some form of Festival trial. Some have argued that this is detrimental to other top-class races that are prestigious events in their own right. However, any potential downside is surely outweighed by the fact that the increased interest in the Festival has widened the attraction of national hunt racing on a worldwide basis and has brought thousands of new enthusiasts to the sport. It also provides a climax and focuses that the Flat season so badly lacks.
Each year the attendances have also continued to grow, and over the duration of the meeting, crowds will easily exceed 200,000. Combine this with those watching on television, listening to the radio and following live on-line feeds – which you can read more about in our Cheltenham Festival 2020 guide – and you have, without doubt, one of the world’s most anticipated racing spectacles.
The quality of the entrants for each and every race is top class, and the event seems to have an increasingly international flavor to it each year. Runners from France, Eastern Europe (particularly in the Cross Country Chase) and Germany are becoming more and more common, and are enjoying considerable success.
However, it is the involvement of one nation in particular, both on and off course, which gives the Festival its unique atmosphere.
The Irish and The Festival
The Irish have been traveling to Cheltenham for generations and a huge Irish presence is an essential part of the unique atmosphere every March. It is estimated that about 7,500 to 8,000 people travel from Ireland to the Gloucestershire countryside each year, although this has declined by about 30% for the last couple of Festivals as a result of the economic downturn.
Those who journey are making one of the sport’s great annual pilgrimages, to attend National Hunt racing famous four-day spectacle. The Irish regularly take center stage on this great occasion, whether it be man or beast. Some of the greatest jockeys, trainers, owners, and horses to have graced the hallowed turf of Prestbury Park have originated from the Emerald Isle. Legendary Irish names such as Jonjo O’Neill, Dawn Run, Arkle, Vincent O’Brien, and Istabraq have sealed their place in Cheltenham Festival folklore with their glorious achievements at this magnificent course.
The Festival would certainly not be the same without the Irish punters who revel in taking on Cheltenham’s bookmakers. Probably the most famous Irish gambler to be found at the Festival is owner JP McManus, known in racing circles as the “Sundance Kid”, who for more than 20 years has bet – and won – huge sums, including successful wagers on his dual Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq.
Legend tells of another Irishman who won enough on Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle of 1998 to pay off his mortgage and then lost his house on Doran’s Pride in the Gold Cup. “It was only a small house anyway,” he is reputed to have said.
Tragedy mingles with triumph all too closely in National Hunt racing and the Irish have suffered their fair share – such as former jockey Shane Broderick, who was paralyzed after a horrific fall at Fairyhouse in 1997. Despite his disability, he bravely reflected on how lucky he was to ride a winner at Cheltenham. These stories sum up the indomitable spirit of the Irish that characterizes the history of the Cheltenham Festival.
The Emerald Isle re-affirmed their dominance of the National Hunt scene in 2006 by winning the three most prestigious prizes the Cheltenham Festival has to offer. Their success reached a magnificent crescendo on the final day when War of Attrition led home an Irish one – two – three in the Gold Cup to send his countrymen into raptures on St Patrick’s Day.
The emotional win of Moscow Flyer in the Champion Chase in 2005 will also live long in the memory, as the Irish chaser confirmed himself as one of the all-time greats and sparked wild Irish celebrations.