Cheltenham Festival: How it all Began

The international meeting at Cheltenham attracts entries from all over the globe.

As we countdown to the 2019 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival, Will Reilly revisits the remarkable history of Cheltenham Racecourse

Racing at Cheltenham has a long and successful history.

The current track, Prestbury Park, stands in the gaze of picturesque Cleeve Hill in Gloucestershire. Racing was first established on the hill in 1819, although steeplechasing first made its mark there in 1834, the year of the first running of the Grand Annual Steeplechase.

The Grand Annual was first run in the Vale of Prestbury. Racing at Cheltenham was then held at a number of venues in the years that followed, the sport always being accompanied by local festivities. Flat racing at Cheltenham ended in 1855.

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The National Hunt Steeplechase, now run as race five on the opening day of the festival, was first run in 1855 but found its way to Prestbury Park in 1911, by which time it was the third most-valuable race in the jumping calendar and the centrepiece of Cheltenham’s March meeting, which found a permanent home at Prestbury Park, where the festival is still held, in 1902.


In 1922, the track’s chairman, FH Cathcart, took the view that staging a meeting full of handicaps was doing little to improve the quality and appeal of racing at the track. Consequently, the race committee decided to frame a race in which the best horses met at level weights, with a nine pounds weight-concession permitted for five-year-olds. It was called the Cheltenham Gold Cup and was first run on 12 March 1924.

By the early 1930s, the Cheltenham Gold Cup was established as a key race in the calendar, and had managed to emerge from under the shadow of the Aintree Grand National.

The fact that Cheltenham races became a key event in the English social calendar owed much to Cathcart’s forward thinking and, undoubtedly, the arrival of Golden Miller. He won the Gold Cup five times in succession from 1932 and, in doing so, found his way into the public’s heart and affections. Just for good measure, he also won the 1934 Aintree Grand National.

Ireland’s influence at the meeting announced itself strongly after the Second World War, firstly through Prince Regent winning the Gold Cup. He was trained by Tom Dreaper, who would go on to train the legendary Arkle, the winner of three-successive Gold Cups from 1964 and, based on most opinions and measures, the greatest jumper ever to grace the sport.

Before Arkle, though, came the equally legendary Vincent O’Brien, who sent out Cottage Rake to win three successive Gold Cups from 1948 and Hatton’s Grace to win three successive Champion Hurdles from 1949. The Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927.

Between 1948 and 1955, Vincent trained the winners of four Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles and three successive Aintree Grand Nationals. He then went on to conquer flat racing and his training achievements are without equal.

Racing Olympics

The history of Cheltenham is full of famous racing names, both equine and human, and competing at the March festival has become an established main target for horses each season. It is often referred to as jump racing’s version of the Olympics, where the best meet the best in Championship races.

But it is more than just a race meeting. Four days of racing in March are said to bring in 55 million euro to the local economy; on-course betting is estimated to turn over 30 million euro, while the off-course figure is probably now upwards of ten times that amount.

On top of this, around 250,000 people attend the fixture and consume vast quantities of tea, coffee, wine, beer, Guinness, beef, potatoes, smoked salmon, and more besides, much of it produced and supplied locally.

Woven tightly into the four days, of course, are the deeds of horses, jockeys and trainers. Great names spring readily to mind: Arkle and Pat Taaffe; Dawn Run and Jonjo O’Neill; Istabraq and Charlie Swan; Best Mate and Jim Culloty.

The list could run and run, the mere mention of such names inspiring warm memories and revisited respect and gratitude.

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The 2019 four-day Festival will, no doubt, bring with it the usual array of hype, hope, heartbreak and heroes. It is sport at its finest: unscripted drama and glorious uncertainty; athleticism and achievement; colour and spectacle; keen but sporting rivalry; appreciative and knowledgeable crowds.

And, as history tells us, it is likely to provide great excitement, along with some of our best sporting memories. This year, it all begins on Tuesday, March 12th.

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