Horses Racing at Cheltenham

Cheltenham Festival History: A Trip Back in Time

We are now less than six weeks until the fantastic celebration of National Hunt racing at the Cheltenham Festival, and we can’t wait to get our glad rags on and enjoy the Spring sunshine at Cheltenham Racecourse.  To build our excitement up for the event we’re going to be looking back at the history of the Festival.

The First Races at Cheltenham

The first races at Cheltenham date back to 1818, which saw horses from the local area tested on the famous Cleeve Hill which overlooks the current Prestbury Park course.  The winner of the only race on that August day was five-year-old Miss Tidmarsh, owned by a Mr E. Jones.

The meeting was a success and proved popular among the many locals who turned out to see what was to become the Cheltenham Festival.  The following year the single race was amped up to a three-day event, featuring a number of races, including the very first Cheltenham Gold Cup.  A ‘real’ more permanent course was laid down on the ground, instead of the makeshift marking posts used before, and a grandstand was built on site, too.

The races at the Cleeve Hill racecourse proved incredibly popular, and news spread quickly over the following years.  By 1828, the Cheltenham event had greatly outgrown what the organisers could have dreamed of, and was seeing crowds of over 50,000 attend the event.

The races formed part of a larger town carnival at Cheltenham and were a major attraction which brought in visitors to the fashionable spa town.  In the evening in the town centre extravagant parties were held for the who’s who of the day, and during the daylight hours racing was the main focus of festivities with crowds attending to eat, drink, gamble and see sideshows at the course.

The racecourse moved to Prestbury Park in 1830 after a riot instigated by the local rector who was preaching of the evils of horseracing and gambling resulted in the whole Cleeve Hill track and its facilities being burnt beyond repair by arson.

The Prestbury Park location was disliked by racing fans for its limited vantage points over the course and by racing professionals for the poorer quality turf.  The 700-capacity grandstand at the Park was soon abandoned and racing returned to the Hill soon after.  Popularity in flat races, as they were at the time at Cheltenham, started to dwindle, and steeplechases became the fashionable race for many.  The Cleeve Hill location was perfect for them, as it was one of the few steeplechase courses in the country which allowed racegoers to see the whole race from a single position near the winning field.

Prestbury Park wouldn’t see racing again until 1902, when over two decades after the land was sold back to racing enthusiast and Cheltenham Racecourse founder Mr W. A. Baring Bingham.  He first used the ground as a stud farm and trained many great horses at the location.

Cheltenham Festival at Prestbury Park

Cheltenham Festival has its history in a prior event known as the National Hunt Meeting.  The event was most known for its showcase race the National Hunt Chase.  The race was a four-miler for amateur jockeys only and had historically changed venues frequently since its first running at Market Harborough in 1860.

The National Hunt Meeting was held at Prestbury Park in 1904 and again in 1905.  It spent time at other racecourses before returning in 1911 and has stayed there ever since.  The first Cheltenham Festival grandstand was constructed in the same year, and a private box was constructed too, which served ‘press and officials’ for the next 70 years.

By the 1920s, the original Cheltenham Gold Cup race had evolved into a three-mile steeplechase and was a major fixture in the National Hunt racing season.  The first Champion Hurdle was introduced in 1927.

Both flat racing and steeplechases experienced a fairly significant a lull in popularity during this period of time, and horse racing needed a new star to bring back some of the fans it had lost.  Cheltenham Festival was the proving ground of this star horse, Golden Miller, who won the Gold Cup five times during the 1930’s.  These victories are often credited with the revival of the sport at the time, which has seen its popularity maintained until the present day.

In his 1934 season, aged seven years, Golden Miller won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year – an incredible first which has never been repeated to today.  He won all five Gold Cups from 1932 until 1936, and was likely to take the 1937 title too but the race was rained off.  Golden Miller retired in early 1939 with 28 wins from 52 races.

The history of Ireland’s large presence at the Cheltenham Festival was started in the post-war racing period, when Irish-trained Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup three years on the trot with trainer V. O’Brien.  The horse won in 1948, ’49, and ’50 – the last of these he beat second-place Finnure by ten lengths.

Cheltenham Festival in the Modern Day

Cheltenham Festival has maintained its prominence and favourable place in fans hearts throughout the years.  Throughout its different iterations on Cleeve Hill and Prestbury Park, the town has been a home of both flat and jumps racing for over two centuries.

It’s an integral part of the Gloucestershire economy, with each Festival generating over £100M for the local area.  When you add in the prize funds of over £4.5M and the money from sponsorships, television deals and gambling the money changing hands at the Festival is almost unimaginable.

Despite this, the Festival continues to grow in size.  In 2005, the Festival grew from three days to four, with six races held on each day.  The highlight race of Tuesday, also called Champion Day, is the Champion Hurdle, and on Wednesday (Ladies Day) the main race is Queen Mother Championship Chase.  St Patrick’s Thursday sees huge numbers of Irish horses and fans attend Cheltenham, and the main race of the day is the World Stayers Hurdle.  Friday is the eponymous Gold Cup Day with the main race being held in the afternoon, following on from the Triumph Hurdle and the County Hurdle races earlier in the day.

The build-up to the Cheltenham Festival now dominates much of the entire National Hunt Season, with almost every race being seen as a set-up or trial for the March meeting.  Attendance at the meeting now peaks well over the 250,000 mark, with Gold Cup day alone seeing over 70,000 racegoers delve on Cheltenham and fill it with excitement.

You and your important clients could join us this historic event in one of our many Cheltenham Festival hospitality facilities, including private grandstand boxes, Silks Restaurant, and The Venue.

Speak to our hospitality team today to discuss hospitality options and VIP experiences at Cheltenham by calling 0121 233 6500.  Limited availability, book now.