The Cheltenham Festival is one of the biggest race meetings in the National Hunt’s calendar, with around a quarter of a million spectators turning up to watch the races every March. It’s not the only meeting that happens at the venue, of course, with the likes of the New Year’s Day event and the November Meeting both offering plenty of good racing at other times in the year. Add in Trials Day ahead of the Festival itself and you can see why Cheltenham Racecourse is so well respected and considered to be one of the finest in the country.
Yet why did racing start in the area in the first place? What is it about the Gloucestershire region that appealed to horse owners to turn up and make the Festival into the behemoth that it has become? Given that the first race took place more than 200 years ago, how did the venue become such a fine example of a racecourse that others look up to in envy? As always with such things, there are numerous answers. Indeed, racing at Prestbury Park underwent a number of false starts before becoming one of the biggest reasons for economic growth in Gloucestershire.
Cheltenham Racing In The Beginning
The first race of any sort took place on Nottingham Hill in 1815 when a flat race occurred. Racing didn’t move to Cleeve Hill until 1818 when a one day meeting of flat racing was run. It was successful enough to mean that it was run again the following year and soon the meeting was welcoming enough people to mean that a grandstand was built a proper course was put down.
By 1819 the meeting had been extended to take place over three days, though unlike the modern day Cheltenham Festival it occurred in August rather than March. Indeed that wasn’t the only major difference with the racecourse’s most successful meeting, given that the Gold Cup back than was a flat race that was run over three miles. Just because it differed to what horse racing fans today might recognise as a meeting in the area doesn’t mean it was any less successful, with nearly 50,000 people showing up in July to watch racing over two days.
Such was the popularity of the horse racing that an entire industry sprang up around it, with a carnival taking place both in Cheltenham town centre and at the racecourse in order to entertain those in attendance. It was a spa town attended by the most fashionable, with parties for the elite taking place in the evening and drinking common. There were even gambling booths erected in order to keep people busy when the racing wasn’t taking place. Just as you might expect, the presence of large crowds of people awash with money brought the less reputable elements along to the town too…
The Meeting Gets Disrupted & Is Moved
The influx into his town of drunks, prostitutes and pickpockets did not please the Reverend Francis Close, who was Cheltenham’s Anglican Rector. Indeed, he was so upset at what was happening that he preached a sermon to those in his parish decrying the evil of gambling in general and horse racing specifically, calling up his congregation to do something about it. They did, turning up at a meeting in 1829 to throw bottles and rocks at the horses and the jockeys that were riding them.
The following year Close took things one step further, being the ring-leader of a group that burnt the grandstand to the ground before the racing was due to take place, virtually cancelling the racing and causing it to change location for the following year. Prestbury Park became the new fields that welcomed the horse racing in 1831, having a grandstand large enough for 700 people to be erected alongside the roughly drawn out course that the horses would need to follow.
Racing Begins To Slow Down & Then Stops
The problem with Prestbury Park as a venue was that the turf wasn’t good enough to cope with the horses, meaning that the competitors weren’t overly keen about the move. They tried again over the next couple of years but eventually a move back to Cleeve Hill seemed inevitable. So it was that the racing returned to its original location in 1835, but an economic depression had set in around the country and suddenly Cheltenham’s impromptu racecourse suddenly didn’t seem quite as appealing to the masses that had attended over the preceding years.
The organisers of the racing at Cheltenham attempted to spruce things up in 1840 by renaming the meeting as the ‘County of Gloucester Races on Cleeve Hill Course’, but it made little to no difference. Racing took place for the final time for some years in 1842, with no flat racing of any description occurring there between 1843 and 1850. There was an attempt to get things going again in 1851 that lasted until 1855 but it was clear that organisers were flogging the proverbial dead horse and the entire enterprise was knocked on the head.
Jump Racing Begins To Take Prominence
Part of the reason for the diminishing interest in flat racing was that jump racing had begun to be seen as the more entertaining alternative. The Grand Annual Steeplechase had been run for the first time in Andoversford in 1834, being watched by more than 10,000 people despite the relatively small field of just nine runners. The horse that came in second in the race was named Conrad and was of interest to those who knew about fear racing because he’d won two races on the Prestbury Park flat the day before.
The Grand Annual Steeplechase is important because it moved from venue to venue over the years, including a brief stint at Prestbury Park in 1847 through to 1853. It might have had a few more outings there but for the fact that the person that bought the land then was vehemently opposed to racing, so it wasn’t until W. A. Baring Bingham bought the land in 1881 that racing of any sort returned to the locale. Even then he didn’t rush to bring racing back, using the area of land as a location for a stud farm until he decided to have a small meeting in 1898.
The Festival Arrives
The history of Cheltenham Racecourse is virtually impossible to discuss without looking at the history of the Cheltenham Festival itself. The first racing festival of any sort took place at Prestbury Park in 1902 with a National Hunt meeting that included a 4-mile race for amateur riders named the National Hunt Chase. It was similar to the Grand Annual Steeplechase in the sense that it moved from venue to venue, eventually settling in Gloucestershire in 1911 and forming the basis around which the Festival of racing was centred.
Messrs Pratt & Co was the firm that took on the managing of the burgeoning new racecourse in Cheltenham, having also managed a number of other courses around the country. One of the members of the firm, Frederick Cathcart, became a clerk of the course and set out his stall with a plan of turning Cheltenham into the ‘Newmarket of jump racing’. The number of things he did to establish Cheltenham Racecourse as the home of jump racing are almost too numerous to mention, but one of the most important to expand the days of racing in March to make it into an unmissable event for all concerned. He also brought in a little race called the Gold Cup in 1924….
If you would like to learn more about how Cheltenham racecourse was used as a hospital in the war, read our dedicated article.
Changes Off The Course
Having exceptional racing to offer and a brilliant course to offer it on is, of course, a crucial part of any racecourse’s development. Cheltenham had offered both from the early days of W. A. Baring Bingham’s ownership of the course and Cathcart’s help in developing it, yet ultimately a racecourse, especially in the days before television coverage, is only as good as the areas from which the spectators get to watch the racing. In the early days those stands were primitive to say the least, with even the facilities built in the 1920s and 1930s offering little in terms of comfort for the punters that arrived at the track to watch the horses.
In fact, the biggest alteration to the way that the racecourse operated didn’t really occur until the 1960s with the building of the Tattersalls Grandstand. The investment came courtesy of the Racecourse Holdings Trust, which was the forerunner to the Jockey Club and was created with the specific aim of securing the future of Cheltenham as a racecourse. They continued to put money into the venue, including the building of a newer and bigger Main Grandstand during the 1970s. It underwent refurbishments throughout the 1980s, whilst during the 1990s new stables were built and a pre-parade ring was created for the horses to move around.
Perhaps the biggest change to Cheltenham as a racecourse came about in 1995 when the Cross Country Course was opened for the first time. It was the first racecourse in the country to offer such a course, immediately seeing the variation of potential races shoot up. It joined the Old Course and the New Course in making the venue a true triple-threat in terms of the races that could take place there, but still the Jockey Club wasn’t done in terms of what the venue could offer to visitors. In 2013 the company unveiled their plans for a £45 million redevelopment of the A&R block that contained the Royal Box, which had opened its doors in 1952.
The new Princess Royal Stand opened its doors for the first time in November of 2015 after 19 months of building work, with the Princess Royal herself, Princess Anne, there to do the honours. As well as a champagne bar, restaurants and the new Royal Box, the stand offered enough space for more than 6,000 spectators to watch the races unfold. It joined the conference centre that had opened in the early 2000s as being part of the new-look Cheltenham Racecourse.
A Brief Timeline Of Cheltenham Racecourse
Here’s a quick look at the key events from Cheltenham Racecourse’s history:
- 1815 – First racing on Nottingham Hill
- 1818 – Racing moved to Cleeve Hill
- 1819 – First ‘festival of racing takes place
- 1829 – Reverend Francis Close arranges for disruption of racing
- 1830 – Grandstand set on fire
- 1831 – Racing moved to Prestbury Park field
- 1834 – Grand Annual Steeplechase takes place for first time in Andoversford
- 1835 – The racing is moved back to Cleeve Hill
- 1840 – Meeting is renamed as County of Gloucester Races on Cleeve Hill Course
- 1842 – Final Cheltenham meeting for years
- 1847 – Grand Annual Steeplechase moved to Prestbury Park temporarily
- 1881 – W. A. Baring Bingham buys the land to use as a stud farm
- 1898 – A small horse racing meeting is held
- 1902 – A racing Festival occurs at Prestbury Park
- 1908 – Frederick Cathcart becomes the Chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse
- 1911 – Cathcart moves the National Hunt Chase to Prestbury Park permanently
- 1924 – Cathcart brings the Gold Cup to Cheltenham
- 1952 – A&R block and Royal Box is opened
- 1960 – Tattersalls Grandstand opens
- 1979 – Main Grandstand is built
- 1995 – Cross Country Course opens
- 2013 – Plans for new stand to replace A&R and Royal Box are unveiled
- 2015 – New Princess Royal Stand is oped to public