Despite the fact that Cheltenham Racecourse is open all year round and hosts some other noteworthy events, there’s no question that the Cheltenham Festival is the gold standard of events held there. It is one of the most famous occasions on the UK horse racing calendar, with only Ascot and Aintree able to compete in terms of worldwide regard and prestige.
Here we’ll tell you all about the Festival, from when it first started right through to its modern day iteration. We’ll also have a look at the different days of the festival and explore what you can expect to happen on each of them. Hopefully all of this will give you a good sense of how the Festival has changed over the years and where it may end up going in the future.
The entire Festival gets underway on Tuesday afternoon with the running of the Novices’ Hurdle. This is followed by a race named in honour of the best horse ever to run at Cheltenham, the Arkle Challenge Trophy Steeple Chase. Next up is the Handicap Steeple Chase, before the Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy is run. The Mares’ Hurdle Race comes before the penultimate event, Novices’ Handicap Chase. The first day’s proceedings are then wrapped up with the one where it all began, the National Hunt Chase.
Ladies Day is a popular one at Cheltenham and things get started with the running of the Novices’ Hurdle Race. The Steeple Chase is the second race of the day, followed by the Handicap Hurdle Race. One of the biggest races of the day is the Queen Mother Champion Steeple Chase, whilst the Cross Country Steeple Chase is also a fan favourite. The Handicap Hurdle Race is the penultimate running of the day and it’s finished off with the Champion Bumper.
As with the previous two days, Day Three starts off with a race for the less experienced horses, the Novices’ Chase. Another Handicap Hurdle Race is run after this, before the sponsored Ryanair Chase heads out. The Stayers Hurdle is the fourth race of the day and comes before the Stable Plate. The Stud Mares Novices’ Hurdle is the second-to-last race of Day Three and the entire day’s proceedings come to a close with the Challenge Cup Handicap Steeple Chase.
There’s little question that the entire Festival builds up to the running of the Gold Cup. Friday is far and away the most popular day of the year at Cheltenham, with punters’ whistles being whetted by the Triumph Hurdle. The Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle Race is named after the first Irish trainer to win a Gold Cup, with the Spa Novices’ Hurdle coming after it. The main event comes in the middle of the day; the Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase is the fourth race run on Friday.
The Foxhunter Steeple Chase Challenge Cup does its best to avoid being an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show type event, with the Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle Race being the penultimate event of the entire Festival. Things are rounded off with the The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Steeple Chase Challenge Cup.
History Of The Cheltenham Festival
To understand the origins of the Festival you need to understand the beginnings of racing at Cheltenham itself. The first ever race in the area of Cheltenham was run in 1815, but it obviously mustn’t have attracted much attention as it didn’t happen again for another three years. When racing returned to Cheltenham it moved from Nottingham Hill, the site of the first race, to Cleeve Hill. Five races took place on the 25th of August 1818. This time it attracted plenty of attention and the decision was made to host racing in the same spot in 1819.
The 1819 meeting was far more extravagant than its predecessor. A grandstand was built, a proper track was laid and the duration of the racing grew from one day to three. The final day of the meeting also saw the inauguration of a previously unheard of event named the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Over the following ten years or so racing at Cheltenham grew to such an extent that up to 50,000 began to turn up to watch it. Of course, with such large crowds a criminal element will almost certainly follow. It didn’t take long for pickpockets, prostitutes and other less desirable members of the community to turn up alongside regular racegoers.
This new element, along with the extravagant parties that went on alongside the racing, caught the eye of Cheltenham’s Anglican Rector, a man named Reverend Francis Close. He objected to it all in the strongest possible terms and his parishioners heard his call. The 1829 meeting saw bottles and other objects thrown at the jockeys and horses, which was obviously bad, but that was as nothing compared to the following year when the grandstand was burnt to the ground before the races under the instigation of Reverend Close. The Rector got what he wanted – to an extent.
The 1831 meeting was moved from Cleeve Hill to the nearby area of Prestbury Park for the following three years. The ground at Prestbury Park wasn’t as good for racing as the turf at Cleeve Hill, however, so in 1835 racing returned there. Sadly by that stage an economic depression had set in and the entire enterprise lost its appeal and glamour. The organisers tried to win people back by renaming the meeting as the “County of Gloucester Races on Cleeve Hill Course” in 1840, but to no avail. By 1843 flat racing in the area had stopped altogether. An attempt was made to revive it from 1851 until 1855, but that also failed.
To an extent flat racing’s demise might have had something to do with with the rising popularity of the steeplechase. On Friday the 4th of August 1834 the Grand Annual Steeplechase was run for the first time in nearby Andoversford. The Grand Annual was raced for the first time two years before the Grand National, making it the oldest steeplechase run in the UK. After its first run out in Andoversford it moved from location to location, moving to Prestbury Park in 1847 and remaining there until 1853.
The Founding Of The Festival
Over the following thirty years racing lost its appeal throughout the country and it seemed as though Cheltenham’s connection to the sport of horse racing was over almost as quickly as it began. Then things took a turn for the interesting in 1881 when a Mr W.A Baring Bingham, a racing enthusiast and champion of the sport, decided to buy Prestbury Park with the hope of restoring it to its former glory. To begin with, however, he used the space as nothing more than a stud farm. It was in 1898 that racing was once more run on the ground there, as Bingham got something of a taste for how successful or otherwise his dream of re-establishing racing in Cheltenham would be.
He was obviously pleased enough with the results. Four years later, on the 9th of April 1902, he held a two day meeting that he named the National Hunt Festival. In itself it wasn’t much to talk about and certainly wasn’t the finished article of the meeting that the Cheltenham Festival would later become. In many respects the Festival actually has its origins in the National Hunt Meeting, an event that was first run at Market Harborough in 1860. As that race changed venue on a fairly regular basis, it was inevitable that it would be held at Cheltenham once the course had established itself. It was held at the Prestbury Park track for the first time in 1904 then again in 1905 before settling in Cheltenham permanently in 1911. That was also the first time that the event was held in March, as it would be moving forward.
As much as Mr. Bingham is a huge part of Cheltenham Festival folklore, so too is Frederick Cathcart. Cathcart was part of Messrs Pratt & Co, a firm that was in charge of the management of numerous racecourses throughout the UK, including Prestbury Park. He was the person that decided that Cheltenham should before for steeplechasing what Newmarket was for flat racing. It was under his guidance that the meeting grew from a two day event to a three day event in 1923 and in 1924 he also introduced a race that lasted over three miles and took on the name of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Though the meeting was popular, it really captured the imagination during the 1930s when Golden Miller won the Gold Cup on five consecutive occasions, establishing itself as one of the most famous names in horse racing. In 1934 he won both the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year – something no other horse has done.
That year was also notable for the death of Frederick Cathcart. He had turned Cheltenham into one of the premier meetings on the entire horse racing calendar as a clerk of the course and the original chairman of the The Steeplechase Company (Cheltenham) Limited. He was a large part of the reason that the National Hunt Committee allowed the National Hunt Meeting to remain at Cheltenham permanently, rather than move from one course to another each year. It’s fair to say that the Cheltenham Festival would not be the world-famous meeting that it is today without the vision and dedication of Frederick Cathcart.
The Development Of The Festival
Nowadays the Cheltenham Festival is known, at least in part, for the large influx of Irish trained horses and jockeys that take part in it. This tradition dates back to the post-second World War era when a horse named Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup in three consecutive years, from 1948 through to 1950. Trained by Vincent O’Brien, he was the first Irish horse to win the competition and is widely perceived to be the driving force behind Ireland’s love of the Festival.
It was during the 1960s that things really took off for the event, though. Firstly Johnny Henderson came together with some friends of his from the city to create Racecourse Holdings Trust and buy the Cheltenham course. A huge amount of money was ploughed into the development of the sport and it was very much needed – the grandstand that stood on the edge of the course was the same one that had been built for punters back in 1911! This investment caught the attention of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who decided that their outside broadcasting needed a bit of shaking up and that horse racing was the ideal sport to do just that.
Of course even all of those things might not have been enough had the Festival not have had a horse to catch everyone’s imagination. Enter Arkle, a beast so impressive that no other steeplechase horse has been able to match his Timeform rating of 212. He ran 34 races during his career and the records show that he was carrying twelve stone or more in extra weight in 23 of them, yet he still finished life having won 27 of those 34. Arkle won his first Gold Cup in 1964 before going on to win it again in 1965 and 1966, earning himself a statue within the grounds of Cheltenham Racecourse.
Cheltenham Festival In The Modern Day
Today the Cheltenham Festival ranks alongside other horse racing events such as the Grand National and Ascot as being one of the country’s premier sporting moment. It’s as well-known and regarded as the FA Cup, Wimbledon, the golf British Open and the British Grand Prix. A lot of that is down to the competition’s history, but it also due to developments that have occurred over the last thirty years or so. When Dawn Run landed both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup in the 1980s, for example, or Desert Orchid winning in almost impossible conditions at the end of the decade. All of those things captured the imagination of a British public that long to fall in love with an exciting sporting event that they can call their own.
Part of the continuing appeal is the fact that each generation gets to claim its own Cheltenham hero. For those who call the 1990s their decade the name Istabraq will live long in the memory for winning three back-to-back Champion Hurdles as the millennium approached. Likewise those who feel that the noughties is their own will remember watching Best Mate ride to Gold Cup glory for three years running from 2002 to 2004, or Kauto Star becoming the first horse in the competition’s history to win the Gold Cup, as he did in 2007, lose out the following year and then reclaim it the year after that. The mid-2000s are also noteworthy as 2005 was the first year that it became a four day meeting, with six races every day.
Another reason that Cheltenham so grips the national consciousness is that the entire jump season is built around leading up to it. If a horse runs well after the ball has dropped to see in the new year then racegoers will note its name and monitor its form as the Festival approaches. For many it is seen as the climax of the jump racing calendar and there’s little question that it’s brought thousands of people to the sport in general – Cheltenham is the biggest single revenue earning event in the entire country, bringing in gate receipts of around £7 million from the roughly 2500,000 visitors and believed to be worth £100 million for the local economy.
Part of the joy of Cheltenham is also to be found in figuring out how the horses will run on each of the courses. The racecourse boasts both an Old Course and a New Course, with the Festival seeing races run on each of them. The Old Course has a slightly shorter run-in, whilst the New Course tends to feature less fences towards the final part of the race. You shouldn’t mistake the names to mean that they’re located in different places, however – they are intertwined with each other and run alongside each other for most of their length.
Cheltenham Festival Through the Years
Moving away from the history of the course and its layout now, it’s worth bearing in mind that Cheltenham has always been a popular place for horse racing fans to visit. Ever since 50,000 people turned up to watch the racing on Cleeve Hill back in the 1800s, attendance has only been an issue for the organisers of meetings in the area for a short period. Even that was when horse racing in general declined in popularity during the middle of the 19th century.
Each year more and more people want to get a taste of the Cheltenham action and the course keeps developing to be able to welcome them. You can still turn up on the day and gain entry every day apart from the Friday when the Gold Cup runs. That is the day when all temporary facilities are opened and up to 71,000 people can be in attendance. In 2019 the attendance was as follows:
- Champion Day – 67,934 (record)
- Ladies Day – 59,209 (record)
- St Patrick’s Thursday – 67,821 (record)
- Gold Cup Day – 71,816 (record)
- Total 4 Day Attendance – 266,780 (record)
Just as the attendances go up, so does the prize money. When the Gold Cup was first run in 1924 it had a prize of £685 attached to it. In 2020 the prize money was £615,000.
2020 saw a record amount of prize money across the four days of the festival, with £4,590,000 up for grabs. With lots of money inevitable comes the desire for something to be shown on television, so it’s little wonder that the TV companies try so hard to get the rights to cover the Festival. From the days during the 1960s when the BBC made it a flagship part of its outside broadcasting coverage, through Channel 4 racing to the dedicated coverage ITV provided, it is the jewel in the crown of any respected network that believes its got a horse racing pedigree.
Notable Cheltenham Festival Moments
Given the popularity of the Festival as well as the amount of money involved in it, it’s not surprising that there have been a number of big days during its history. Ever Cheltenham became the home of the National Hunt Meeting back in 1911, there have been notable occasions that it’s worth mentioning here.
1924: The Gold Cup as it is now was run at the Festival for the first time
1927: The Champion Hurdle enjoyed its inauguration at Cheltenham
1932 to 1936: Golden Miller wins the Gold Cup five years running, including a 1934 double with the Grand National
1948 to 1950: Cottage Rake cements the Festival’s popularity with the Irish by winning the Gold Cup three years running
1954: Four Ten becomes the first winner of the Gold Cup to be trained locally
1963 to 1965: Arkle cements himself in Cheltenham legend
1978: For the first time since its inception, the Gold Cup is run in April instead of March due to snow
1989: 58,000 people watched Desert Orchid reign in Yahoo to win the Gold Cup despite torrential rain, snow and the latter horse’s love of such conditions
1990: 100/1 shot Norton’s Coin comes home and becomes the longest ever winner of the Gold Cup
1997 to 2000: Istabraq wins a record four races at the Festival, starting with the Novices’ Hurdle before winning three Champion Hurdles
2001: The Festival is abandoned in its entirety for the first time because of foot and mouth disease
2002 to 2004: Best Mate becomes the first horse since Arkles to win three consecutive Gold Cups
2005: The Festival is extended to become a four day meeting
2008: The second day of the Festival has to be cancelled owing to high winds. The races are run over Thursday and Friday instead
2009: Kauto Star, having won the Gold Cup in 2007, becomes the first horse in the Festival’s history to regain the trophy
2014: Quevega became the only horse to win six times at the Cheltenham Festival
2019: Willie Mullins trained horse Al Boum Photo wins to complete the legacy for the trainer with the most ever festival wins.
2020: Al Boum Photo wins the Gold Cup again to become the first horse to complete back-to-back wins since Best Mate.
2021: First Festival with no spectators, Rachael Blackmore becomes first female jockey to win Champion Hurdle and top jockey overall. Ireland dominate with 23 wins (82% of races) & Henry de Bromhead becomes first trainer to win Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at the same meeting.
Cheltenham Festival Records
Jockey Most Wins In One Year: 7 – Ruby Walsh (2009 & 2016)
Trainer Most Wins In One Year: 8 – Willie Mullins (2015) & Gordon Elliot (2018)
Enjoying The Festival
Hopefully all of that will give you a real sense of how the Festival works, where its come from and how it has developed over the years. As one of the UK’s most exciting weeks of racing you’re sure to have a brilliant time at Cheltenham, regardless of which day you attend.
After all, around 200,000 pints of Guinness and 120,000 bottles of wine are drank over the course of the four days and over £650,000 is withdrawn from the cash machines around the course.
Whether you’re there in person or watching at home or in the pub, may the Cheltenham Festival odds be ever in your favour.
If you would like to test your Cheltenham Festival knowledge why not take our quiz.