Take a look at the races that are run at Cheltenham Racecourse and there are any number of exciting and interesting races to get your teeth into. The concentration of these races are squeezed into a period of just four days when the Cheltenham Festival rolls around, with prestigious races taking place everywhere you look.
It’s tempting to think of the Gold Cup as being the oldest race because it is the most important, but in actuality it’s only been being run since 1924. There are other events run at the racecourse that precede that by some distance, though when a race’s start date actually was depends on whether you think that races that have been stop-start in nature should be on the list.
|1834||Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase||Grade 3|
|1860||National Hunt Chase||Grade 2|
Foxhunter Challenge Cup
Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase
|Class 2 Chase|
|1912||The Stayers' Hurdle||Grade 1|
|1920||County Handicap Hurdle||Grade 3|
|1924||The Cheltenham Gold Cup||Grade 1|
|1927||The Champion Hurdle||Grade 1|
JCB Triumph Hurdle
The Triumph Hurdle
|1946||Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup||Class 2 Chase|
RSA Novices' Chase
|1946||Festival Trophy Handicap Chase||Grade 3|
|1946||Supreme Novices' Hurdle||Grade 1|
The Origins Of The Course
You can read about the origins of Cheltenham Racecourse in more detail elsewhere on the site, so we won’t go over the same ground here. Instead, we’ll look at it with regards to when the first races could have taken place.
The first racing to take place on Cleeve Hill was in 1818 but by 1829 the local Parish Priest, Reverend Francis Close, was campaigning against the racing continuing. It led to disruption at the following year’s meeting and the eventual abandonment of racing in the area entirely.
There were attempts to hold racing elsewhere, with Prestbury Park being the main location used, but it never quite took off. That is until the start of the 20th century when the National Hunt Chase was moved to the venue permanently.
Having first took place at Cheltenham Racecourse in 1861, the event was moved between various venues until it was settled at Prestbury Park in 1911. Its presence on the racecourse meant that other races soon began to follow suit, which is why the Cheltenham Festival has been able to grow to become the event that it is today.
The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase
Talk of trying to figure out which race is the oldest run at Cheltenham being complicated stems from the presence of the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase on the Festival calendar.
It was first run in the April of 1834 at Andoversford, which is located not far from Cheltenham Racecourse. It was run over three miles and the fact that it started so long ago is a reason that some people might considered it to be Cheltenham’s oldest race.
The problem is that it was discontinued in the 1860’s and didn’t get revived again until the start of the 20th century. Even then it wasn’t exclusive to Prestbury Park, having been run at venues such as Leicester, Warwick and Melton Mowbray.
It didn’t return to Cheltenham Racecourse until 1913, with the race remaining there ever since. The name of Johnny Henderson was attached to the race in 2005 in honour of the fact that he was one of the driving forces behind the formation of Racecourse Holdings Trust, which safeguarded the future of Prestbury Park in 1961.
It was subjected to quite a major change ahead of the 2019 running. Having previously been the penultimate race of the Festival it was moved to be final final event during the meeting. That came alongside a decision to limit the maximum number of horses that could take part in it from 24 to 20. The changes were all part of a 17-step plan introduced by the British Horseracing Authority in the hope of deciding the number of deaths suffered by horses during the Cheltenham Festival.
National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup
Whilst the Grand Annual Chase is the older of the two events, the fact that it was absent from the lineup for much of the end of the 19th century means that it’s difficult to consider it as Cheltenham’s oldest race. With that in mind, the next event on the list is the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup, which was inaugurated in 1860.
As with the Grand Annual, it struggled to find a home during its formative years and was actually hosted by Cheltenham Racecourse a number of times, including in 1904 and then again the following year.
It was moved to the Gloucestershire course permanently in 1911 and has remained there ever since. That decision was taken in order to flesh out the National Hunt Meeting to being a two-day event and it was seen as being a race of huge prestige, therefore giving the meeting additional credence. Indeed, until the 1930s this was considered to be the second-most important race on the National Hunt calendar behind only the Grand National.
Part of the race’s prestige lies in its difficult, run as it is over a distance of just shy of four miles. That makes it the longest race to take part at the Festival. It was made a Listed event in 2014 and then was upgraded once more to become a Grade 2 offering three years later.
Considered by many to be the ultimate test of a staying hurdler’s ability, the Stayers’ Hurdle has been won by some of jump racing’s biggest names. The likes of Big Buck’s, Thistlecrack and Inglis Drever have all crossed the finish line first, with Big Buck’s doing so on a record four consecutive occasions between 2009 and 2012. Yet it’s not the names of the horses that have won the event a place on this list.
Rather it is its history, with the Stayers’ Hurdle having been run at Cheltenham since 1912. That means it’s been at the racecourse since the year after the first Cheltenham Festival. What gives it a proper call for a claim to be the racecourse’s oldest event is the fact that it is the oldest Championship race to take place at Cheltenham, being older than all of the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Gold Cup.
As with the other races, though, things are rarely that simple. The Grade 1 offering began life as a weight-for-age event and was run as the Stayers’ Selling Hurdle. The winning horse, Aftermath, was sold for £50 after the race’s conclusion. It was then dropped in 1928 and again during the Second World War, eventually returning as a replacement for the Spa Hurdle in 1946. With that in mind, then, can it really be considered to be the oldest race run at Cheltenham Racecourse?
Which Race Is The Oldest?
Which, then, is the oldest race? In terms of simply discussing the race that was run for the first time the longest ago there’s no debate that the honour belongs to the Grand Annual Chase. Its inauguration being in 1834 means that it’s 26 years older than National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup.
What complicates the matter is that it wasn’t run for a number of years, meaning that it might be the oldest but isn’t necessarily the one that has taken place the most times. That honour probably does belong to the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup, which was first run in 1860 and has taken place most years since then, even if not always at Prestbury Park.
If you are the sort of person that things that a race must be of Championship quality in order to be thought of as being a proper race, however, then the Stayers’ Hurdle is the one that sits at the top of the list. Though being the youngest of the races in the sense that it was inaugurated in 1912, it has always been run at Cheltenham Racecourse and is one of just four such races that take place during the Festival.
Of course, if it’s the prestige of the race that you think is the most important thing then the Gold Cup would also stake a claim. Whilst it clearly isn’t the oldest race, having been run for the first time in 1924, it is the most prestigious race run at Cheltenham at any time of the year. It is the Festival’s crown jewell and the race that even the most casual of racing fans will be able to tell you something about. Alongside the Grand National it sits as one of the key National Hunt races.
All in all, though, you’ll have to make your own mind up about which race officially classes as the oldest. Use a search engine to ask the question and the answer that you’ll be given is the Stayers’ Hurdle, but as we’ve shown in this article it is far from a certainty. There are countless different things that can sway people’s opinion on the matter, so the only thing that you can do is decide upon which of the factors matters the most and go from there.
Whether you want the official answer or an unofficial one, the simple truth is that Cheltenham is the home of any number of top-class races with a unique and fascinating history. If the past interests you as much as the future then Prestbury Park is a place to case your eye every time March rolls around.