• Peter McNeile

Cheltenham Festival: evolution of Jump racing's greatest race meeting

The Cheltenham Festival should be on any racing enthusiast's bucket list. In normal circumstances, it's a vibrant celebration of man's affinity with the horse, and a rite of the British spring. Even in these extraordinary times, the column inches it spawns are the envy of racecourses all across the world.



Packed grandstands everywhere relay the success of a day at the Festival
Packed grandstands everywhere relay the success of a day at the Festival


It's a common misconception that the Festival is a relatively modern phenomenon. Actually, its roots stem back all the way to the turn of the twentieth century, and the event is founded not on the Gold Cup, but on a race that was for years something of an enigma.


The first 70 years of steeplechasing in Britain was defined by two great races: the Grand National, founded in 1839, and the National Hunt Chase (or Grand National Hunt Chase), first run in 1860.


The Grand National is a race, and a meeting now, that we can return to at a later juncture, as it merits a column all of its own. The National Hunt Chase, on the other hand, is a mystery to all but those closest to the sport.


It had something of the Breeders' Cup ethos around it: a race that toured the hunting shires of England, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire to an occasional dalliance with Catterick in Yorkshire, and Newmarket in Suffolk. A race over 4 miles for maidens at starting, to be ridden by gentlemen ( I suspect the translation of this was not too literal) carrying 12st. The prize fund for the opening race over Market Harborough rolling grassland in Leicestershire was a princely £500 added to the stakes, a more valuable pot than the National, although entry money topped up that latter race considerably. The £500 was, in theory, subscribed by the hunts of England; hence the name of the race.


The first ever National Hunt Steeplechase was won by Bridegroom, trained not a mile from the course by coachman Cherry Angell, and ridden by all-round athlete Edmund Burton, an Oxford Blue.


In its second year, the National Hunt Chase headed for Cheltenham over broadly the same course as now, although this land was not bequeathed to the racecourse company until 1898. And if truth be told, it was probably the gift of the land at Prestbury by local benefactor Lord Ellenborough, who lived at Southam Manor, or what is now known as Ellenborough Park Hotel, that enabled the Festival's cornerstone to land permanently at Cheltenham.


In 1904, Cheltenham struck a deal with the National Hunt Committee to invest in the racecourse, grandstands and all the paraphernalia of a modern racecourse in return for a permanent placement of the National Hunt Chase. The race returned in 1905, and remained permanently from 1911, when the then Clerk of Course, Frederick Cathcart, had concluded the build of the grandstands.


The 1911 race, with £1,000 added to the stakes, was the most valuable race of the two day fixture. Followers of French racing will be interested to learn that a 4 year olds steeplechase took place on the same card. A staggering 38 runners lined up for the big race.


Clerk of the Course, and founder of the modern day Cheltenham, Frederick Cathcart, was never one to let the grass grow under his feet. Capitalising on the popularity of two days in March built around the National Hunt Chase, he created a weight-for-age steeplechase over 3m 2f in 1924 - the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Its resounding success was followed 3 years later by the Champion Hurdle, providing the two bookends of the fixture.


Racing, even in the early years, was a hugely popular pastime. It was not unusual for 30,000 to attend a day of the National Hunt meeting pre-war but, after the conclusion of the war, one man defined the growth path of the fixture, and the origin of its participants. That man was renowned trainer Vincent O'Brien.


Vincent began training in 1944, a time when there was very little racing in still-rationed Britain. And here, post-war, Vincent recognised an opportunity that so many others have followed since. In a halcyon eleven year period, he won the Gold Cup three years running with Cottage Rake (1948-50), the Champion Hurdle with Hatton's Grace (1949-51) and for good measure the Grand National with three different horses: Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954) and Quare Times (1955).


Prince Regent on his way to post; until the 1970s, the start of the Gold Cup was behind the current grandstands
Prince Regent on his way to post; until the 1970s, the start of the Gold Cup was behind the current grandstands

What started as a trickle became a torrent as other Irishmen followed his lead. At this year's Festival, despite the impact of COVID and Brexit, well over 100 horses are expected to travel from Ireland to compete at what is best described as the World Championships for Jump racing. And increasingly, there are runners from France, although nearly half the runners are French-breds, a sign of the international flavour of the event. American runners have also been known.


One horse became the benchmark by which all Cheltenham winners would be judged. The extraordinary Arkle, owned by one of the sport's most loyal owners, the Duchess of Westminster, trained in Ireland by Tom Dreaper, and ridden by Pat Taaffe, dominated the Gold Cup - and the sport at large - between 1963-65. To be afforded the comparison of "the best since Arkle" is the ultimate modern compliment to a steeplechaser. Timeform afforded him a rating of 212.


Arkle, racing's benchmark of excellence
Arkle, racing's benchmark of excellence


Other races have been added over time; in 1981, the two mile Champion Chase was inaugurated to celebrate the contribution to the sport of the Queen Mother; the Bumper was created in 1992, and in 2005, after careful deliberation, 5 new races were added to create a fourth day, including the cross country, a novices handicap chase over 2m 5f (now the Marsh Chase, a standard Novices race), the Fred Winter Handicap (an additional juvenile hurdle), a new Graded novices hurdle over 3 miles and the 2m 5f Ryanair Chase, a conditions event over the middle distance.


This single biggest uplift in the volume of races was nervously anticipated, not least for its propensity to dilute the quality of races, and over time, it would be fair to say, there has been some increase in the amount of choice available to prospective champions which sometimes enables them to avoid each other. However, the growth in popularity of the event has been a major stimulus to the bloodstock market, as well as allowing more people to experience the thrill of top flight ownership.


Most recently, the evolution of the fixture has forced races to disappear. To continue the stimulus to the bloodstock sector, mares races have been included. The first created a superstar of Quevega, winner 6 times consecutively, although the standard of the early races was weak.


Quevega, 6 times a winner of the Mares Hurdle
Quevega, 6 times a winner of the Mares Hurdle

More recently, a mares hurdle and this year, a mares chase have been added. Whether they hold to the ethos of finding the best horse is a moot point, but they fulfil a role in the commercial growth of the sport at large which Cheltenham does so much to deliver.


It's a source of regret that in the inevitable pursuit of higher prize funds and money to pay for them, that the names of some of the founding fathers of the sport's history at Cheltenham in the race titles have made way for commercial titles. Frederick Cathcart disappeared in 2005 when the Plate was renamed, and the great Fred Winter has all but disappeared, as has Vincent O'Brien, whose name was appended to the County Hurdle for many years. Fulke Walwyn and Johnny Henderson, the latter the architect of the saving of Cheltenham in 1964, have presently too many connections still living to disappear just yet, as does Martin Pipe, whose conditional riders race is an addition of the last 12 years. But their passing is also a testament to the evolving nature of Cheltenham, reflecting its audience and the horsemen that populate it.


The peerless Vincent O'Brien
The peerless Vincent O'Brien


No-one can quite identify when the meeting turned from being known as the National Hunt Meeting to the Festival. But let there be no doubt as to the value the modern name has acquired. In the nineties, the name Festival was registered at the UK Patent office in relation to Jump horseracing to protect it from copycat exercises elsewhere. As a result, other fixtures have to request permission to use the description in promoting their own events.


Of one thing you can be sure; whilst this year, the races will play to empty grandstands, the appetite for Cheltenham remains undimmed. It's a fixture of conspicuous consumption: over 250,000 pints of Guinness, Ireland's national drink, 8,000 gallons of tea and coffee are consumed, 9 tons of potatoes and 5 tons of smoked salmon amidst 45,000 hospitality covers, produced in 30 mobile kitchens and served by nearly 4,000 temporary staff make this one of the largest sporting events in Europe, never mind the UK.


Guinness, a tonic for Irish winners
Guinness, a tonic for Irish winners



Sixteen additional flights are normally scheduled to and from Ireland into the UK's airports at Bristol and Birmingham to accommodate Irish visitors. The local economy benefits to the tune of around £30m+, although this figure has never been revised since it last disappeared in 2001, the year that foot & mouth disease last cancelled the event. Extra trains bring over 20,000 additional visitors through Cheltenham station, where the norm is 6,000 per day.


And that's before the betting.


Quite what the impact of the Covid crisis will be on off-course betting is unclear. Whilst betting shop turnover is zero for as long as UK retail is off limits, racing fans have found their way online, and with television viewing figures way ahead of the norm for the winter, some recompense is finding its way back into racing. But these four days represent a huge boost to Tote coffers, normally attributed at 10% of their annual turnover on course. This may leave a lasting legacy of spectators switching online on a permanent basis.


The Festival will be very different in 2021, but its enduring legacy remains. The pursuit of excellence over the birch and hurdles of Prestbury Park remains as fiercely contested as when the 31 runners lined up for the first Grand National Hunt Steeplechase at Market Harborough in 1860 and the adulation of the winner has only grown in the interim.

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