Horse racing dates back to the nomadic tribes of Central Asia in 4,500 BC. It was a mainstay public attraction throughout Babylonian, Ancient Greek, and Roman times.
Today, some pundits claim this sport is on life-support, as interest in thoroughbred racing is dwindling year on year. Things keeping it alive include online sportsbooks that offer competitive horse racing odds and super established events like the Grand National.
The Grand National is UK’s premium horse racing event broadcasted on free-to-air terrestrial television in Britain since 1960. Today, an estimated 600 million people watch it every year. In 2021, Flutter Entertainment reported that more than £100 million in bets got placed on the Grand National across the gambling industry.
Sadly, this horse racing spectacle aside, few others of the sport’s events manage to generate similar worldwide levels of interest. Royal Ascot, the Epsom Derby, and the Cheltenham Festival are select ones that come close.
The latter features the second-largest money prize in the UK, held at Cheltenham Racecourse at Prestbury Park. The track and its associated annual event held in March have a long-standing history and are particularly popular with Irish visitors.
The famous Cheltenham roar is the stuff of legend. Below, we go into the history of horse racing in Cheltenham and how these sporting events grew into an annual four-day festival that attracts thousands of spectators each year.
The Start of Cheltenham Racing
In 1815, the first officially recorded race took place on Nottingham Hill. Three years later, racing moved to Cleeve Hill. There, a one-day meet of flat racing got held. It was such a hit with locals and residents of the surrounding regions that it got scheduled again for the following year, where it got extended to a three-day event in August.
It was a flat race held on a three-mile track, attracting close to 50,000 spectators. Given its success, an entire industry sprung up around it. That included a carnival held at Cheltenham’s racecourse and the town’s square to entertain all those in attendance. The influx of tourists to the region these festivities brought was staggering.
However, not everyone approved of the people and behaviour that horse racing brought with it. Crime, prostitution, and alcoholism rose substantially in the Cheltenham area during the races, which got met with pushback from the townsfolk and religious authority figures.
In 1829, many people showed up hurling rocks and bottles at the jockeys while they were riding. Reverend Francis Close, Cheltenham’s Anglican Rector, took things up a notch the following year.
He led a group that cancelled the event by burning the grandstand to the grounds before the races were to take place. That caused a change of location to occur the following year.
Thus, in 1831, Prestbury Park became the new field for the Cheltenham race. The change did not last long as the Prestbury Park track had a turf not suitable for horses. That inconvenience led the event to return to its original location.
The Cheltenham Festival unofficially got underway in 1860 when the National Hunt Chase got held at Market Harborough. At the start, it frequently switched locations before settling on the Warrick Racecourse near the end of the 19th century.
In 1904, it came back to Prestbury Park at a new track build in 1902. Nevertheless, it returned to Warwick for the next few years, waiting for additional improvements to the Cheltenham track, completed in 1911.
The scenic site has remained the race’s home from then on, featuring two separate courses alongside each other in a natural amphitheatre.
Modern Cheltenham Race History
The inaugural race of the Stayers’ Hurdle happened in 1912 over a distance of little under three miles. In 1924, the Gold Cup got established as a supporting race to the Country Hurdle.
Over the years, it grew into a championship one that many trainers looked at as adequate preparation for the Grand National.
The Champion Hurdle first got run in 1927, and the Grade 1 National Hunt steeplechase, The Queen Mother Champion Chase, debuted in 1959. At the time of their inception, both did not rank as championship races,
Before 2005, the Cheltenham Festival got held over three days. From that year on, it implements the four-day format where each day features a championship race.
The total number of races is twenty-eight, finishing with the Gold Cup on Friday. Unlike other highly-rated British flat racing events, the Cheltenham Festival does not attract many international competitors.
Since 2015, the Festival’s racecourse features the 6,500-capacity Princess Royal Stand.