Let’s go back to a time when it was a green & pleasant land that could be seen as far as the eye could see.
That time was the Nineteenth century, 1815 to be exact, this is when the 1st recorded race was run in Cheltenham, Notting hill to be precise!
They had to then wait another 3 years for the next recorded meeting on the 25th August 1818, there was a 5 card meeting, which the 1st race was won by Mr E Jones on a 5 year old bay mare called Miss Tidmarsh.
A year later, 1819, saw improvements to the facilities & the 1st known running of the Gold Cup, which was originally run as a 3 mile flat race & was run on the last day of an a extend 3 day meeting, the race was won by a horse called Spectre.
Back in the Nineteenth Century, drinking & Betting were frowned upon, so the local Anglican Rector Reverend Francis Close, had his say about all the elaborate parties, drinking & betting, which also brought some unwanted folk to town. The likes of Thieves &Working Ladies began to frequent the meetings. The Reverend managed to cajole his congregation, or so it is noted, to disrupt the meeting in 1829, telling of the Evils that racing had brought to the community. They Threw Rocks & Bottles at the Horses & their mounts. The following year, it is also believed that this was the reason for the arson attack during 1830, so with the facilities burnt to the ground, the meeting was moved to Prestbury for the following 3 years(1831-1834).
1834 (April) saw the 1st Grand Annual Steeplechase run here, over 4 miles with 9 runners & won by Fungleman, this race precedes the Grand National by 2 years
1835 saw a return to Cleeve hill, as the ground was better & a new 3 storey stand had been built following the fire, during the 1800’s there was problems with the national economy & despite renaming the meeting in 1840, had no effect so from 1843 to 1850 there was no racing there.
1851 – 1855 there were a few race meeting’s but nothing on the scale of what had previously been held here, so in 1860 saw a Grand National Hunt chase held at Market Harbour, having been held in several places around the country in the past 5 years, notably at Warwick.
Into the twentieth century & racing had returned to a new course at Prestbury Park, after improvements were made, including a new stand, better paths, solid enclosure & paddock extension.
This was brought about by a gentleman called Frederick Cathcart, who was a member of Messers Pratt & Company, he became Clerk of the course & called for Cheltenham to be the national hunt version of Newmarket(Flat racing mecca back then). He became the 1st chairman of Steeplechase Company(Cheltenham) Ltd & a deal was agreed with The National Hunt Committee . The deal included Cheltenham keeping the National Hunt Meeting, instead of it going around the country. So in 1911 the Cheltenham Festival as we know it was born…….
During Mr Cathcart’s spell in charge, the meeting was extended from 2 to 3 days(1923), also led to the introduction in 1924 of level weights for the meeting’s 3 mile steeplechase, now know as the Cheltenham Gold Cup & in 1927 oversaw the introduction of the Champion Hurdle. Sadly Mr Catchcart passed in 1934, aged 74.
The 1930’s gave us the Mighty Golden Miller, who won the Gold Cup 5 times from 1932 to 1936, who also became the only horse to win the Gold Cup & Grand National in the same year(1934)
In 1937, the Gold Cup was abandoned due to bad weather, then in 1948 after Second World War, had the 1st Irish trained winner, in the shape of Cottage Rake, who won it 3 years on the bounce. Arkle was the next horse to complete a hatrick of Gold Cup Wins from 1963 to 1965 ,1978 saw the Gold Cup abandoned again due to snow.
In 1990 the Gold Cup had it’s 1st 100/1 winner when Norton’s Coin won & is still the biggest odds winner of the Cup. 1997 saw the Great Istabraq win 4 festival races between 1997 & 2000.
2001 saw the meeting cancelled due to a national outbreak of Foot & Mouth, the following year (2002) saw Best Mate win the 1st of 3 Gold Cups, the last in 2004 which was the last time the meeting was a 3 day race card.
2005 saw the meeting extended to 4 days, as we know it now, with 6 races per day, running from Tuesday to Friday & the introduction of the Cross Country Chase, ran over 3m 7f on the Tuesday along with the Champion Hurdle, Wednesday’s highlight is Queen Mother Champion Chase, Thursday has the World(Stayers) Hurdle & Friday the Gold Cup.
Kauto Star wins the 2007 Gold cup & doing so receives a 1 Million Bonus….. 2008 the festival had to move by 1 day due to strong winds, so started on Wednesday & ran till Saturday.
So from Humble beginning’s in 1815 to present day, now almost 200,000 people visit the race course over the 4 days of racing & Millions pass through bookies & Punters hands, plenty of Guinness is drunk, as the festival is usually held around St Patricks day, it continues to go from strength to strength.
Did you Know? – Nicky Henderson’s father Jonny (Part of the Race Course holding Trust) Purchased Cheltenham Race Course!.
Article by Charlie McGreevy.