In 1902 the regency spa town of Cheltenham pulled off a fantastic coup when it landed the annual National Hunt Steeplechase and accompanying race meeting. The Steeplechase began in 1860 and had toured various tracks around the UK, including Sandown, Newmarket, Derby, Liverpool, Hurst Park, Lincoln and Leicester. Cheltenham had hosted horse racing since 1815, but securing the National Hunt Meeting really put the town on the map. Organisers were disappointed to see it go in 1903 and they persuaded the National Hunt Committee to let them host it again in 1904 and 1905. After that it went to Warwick for five years, but the Cheltenham folk were undeterred and brought it back in 1911. It became the Cheltenham Festival and it has remained there ever since, going on to become the most important fixture in jump racing.
It hosts 14 Grade 1 races, the most of any meeting in the National Hunt calendar, and is second only to the Grand National in terms of prize money. But for the fans, the punters, the owners, the trainers and the jockeys, the Cheltenham Festival is by far the most important event of the year. Hundreds of millions of pounds are wagered over the four days and it generates a gargantuan amount of column inches and social media posts. Heavyweight bouts include the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champions Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the World Hurdle, among the most prestigious races in the world.
But that was not always the case. Back in 1911, when Cheltenham was in the process of establishing itself as the home of jumps racing, just as Newmarket was the home of flat racing, prize purses were less than £1,000 for the biggest races. It was a two-day affair, blighted by foul weather and extremely heavy going, but there was still plenty of excitement for the crowds that gathered. A 33/1 shot, Sir Halbert, won the £832 National Hunt Steeplechase by a neck on the first day, and the following day Autocar won the precursor to the Gold Cup at odds of 100/6.
Over the next decade the festival grew in popularity and national significance under the guidance of Frederick Cathcart, senior partner at Messrs Pratt & Co, which owned Cheltenham’s Prestbury Park among other courses. By 1923, it was so popular that Cathcart’s team decided to increase the meeting to three days. The following year saw the first Cheltenham Gold Cup, run over 3m 2f, which has gone on to become the blue riband event of jumps racing. Over the years the list of winners is a roll of honour featuring the greatest legends ever to grace the sport of kings: Golden Miller, Arkle, Mill House, Kauto Star, Best Mate, Easter Hero, Cottage Rake, the list goes on and on. It is the most prestigious race in the National Hunt season and remains the centrepiece of the Cheltenham Festival every March.
The Champion Hurdle first ran in 1927 and it is now the main showpiece event of the first day of the festival. The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the main draw on day two. It started life in 1857, run over two miles, and is the leading minimum-distance chase in the National Hunt calendar. The Stayers’ Hurdle remains a championship race since its 1912 inception.
The Modern Era
In 2005, organisers took the decision to increase the festival to four days and introduced five new races to ensure top-class action on every day. Nowadays there are 28 races in total, and 14 are Grade 1: the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Arkle Challenge Trophy, Champion Hurdle, David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle, RSA Chase, Champion Bumper, Golden Miller Novices’ Chase, Festival Trophy, Stayers’ Hurdle, Triumph Hurdle, Spa Novices’ Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Ruby Walsh has dominated as the champion jockey, while the likes of Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins have enjoyed great success in the trainer stakes.
A couple of years have been missed due to weather, war and foot and mouth, but the Cheltenham Festival stands as an annual highlight in the British sporting calendar alongside Wimbledon, the Open, the British Grand Prix and the FA Cup Final. It generates more than £50 million for the local economy, attracts thousands of Irish racegoers, draws crowds of 65,000, and its popularity continues to skyrocket, with prize purses climbing and betting revenue increasing each year.
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