The origins of the Cheltenham Festival

February 16, 2018

The Cheltenham Festival is undoubtedly one of the great occasions of the racing calendar. It may not have the name 'Royal' attached, but it is a truly wonderful occasion with a rich history and its own sense of glamour.

Cheltenham as a town is certainly grand enough, with its Regency architecture dominating the classy centre. The course is on the edge of town, tucked under the lush, rolling escarpment of Cleeve Hill. 

It is as classical an English setting as it gets, yet it features modern stands and state-of-the-art facilities for spectators that ensure those enjoying a visit can make the most of the occasion. The corporate hospitality facilities are superb, a key feature of the new grandstand. 

This, then, is the modern day Cheltenham Racecourse, the centre of the racing world for a few days every March, where the Gold Cup takes centre stage and has a supporting cast of many more fine races. 

Of course, it hasn't always been this way. While Epsom was hosting the Derby in the 18th century, it was not until 1815 that racing began in Cheltenham. Nor was there a fence in sight, with the first recorded event being flat racing on Nottingham Hill. Three years later there were five races on Cleeve Hill in August, a meeting that proved sufficiently popular for a grandstand to be erected at the site in time for the 1819 meeting. 

Indeed, momentum was gathering fast. The meeting was extended to three days (August 23rd-25th) and the course was properly laid down on the west side of the hill. Above all, there was a big trophy to compete for, as the first Gold Cup was run as a three-mile flat race for three-year-olds. 

The event grew in popularity and became highly fashionable, although it was not just the great and the good who came. With some antisocial behaviour also occurring, opposition to the sport arose in some areas. This went as far as an arson attack that destroyed the grandstand in 1829.

A new course was clearly needed, and it was in 1831 that racing first began at Prestbury Park, the site of the current course. Back then, though, conditions were poor and the sport soon returned to Cleeve Hill.  

As the 19th century wore on, however, flat racing declined just as steeplechasing became more popular and Cleeve Hill gradually fell out of use. The Prestbury Park site was sold in 1881 to racing enthusiast William Baring Bingham, but was only used as a stud farm until 1898.

The 20th century brought rapid change, however with Baring Bingham establishing the modern course and in 1902 holding its first National Hunt Festival. This event was staged in different places around England for a few years, but clerk of the course and founder of the Steeplechase Company (Cheltenham) Frederick Cathcart, who managed several race venues at the time, decided that while Newmarket should be the permanent home of flat racing, Cheltenham should be the headquarters for steeplechasing.

Thus it was that since 1911, Cheltenham has staged its annual festival. The names of important individuals in its history are remembered by the titles of races like the Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle and the Frederick Cathcart Cup, although the latter was replaced by the more sponsor-friendly Ryanair Cup. 

Some might dislike that kind of change, but without the gradual evolution of steeplechasing in Cheltenham, the Gold Cup would still be a flat race run halfway up Cleeve Hill.

Image: Alan Crowhurst/Getty  from Keith Prowse subscription

Posted In:

Connect with us


Receive our newsletter


Email to a friend