Saturday 26 April 2014

The Cheltenham Festival

Anyone with even a passing interest in National Hunt racing has probably heard of the Cheltenham Festival, the four-day celebration of the sport, which takes place in March each year. Nowadays, the Cheltenham Festival features four major championship races, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the World Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, plus six other Grade One races, and attracts over 200,000 racegoers, including an estimated 10,000 from across the Irish Sea.

The first National Hunt Meeting took place at Cheltenham Racecourse in its current location, in Prestbury Park, on the outskirts of the town, in 1902. However, it was not until 1911 that the National Hunt Meeting officially became known as the Cheltenham Festival and returned, permanently, to Prestbury Park.

The Festival grew in popularity and, in 1923, was lengthened from the original two days to three. The inaugural Cheltenham Gold Cup was run in 1924, making it the oldest championship race at the Festival. However, in the early years the Cheltenham Gold Cup was overshadowed by the National Hunt Chase, which had been part of the original National Hunt Meeting, and was only elevated to ‘Blue Riband’ status by the performance of some exceptional winners.

Cottage Rake won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for five years running between 1932 and 1936, Cottage Rake completed a hat-trick of wins between 1948 and 1950 and, after the contest was switched to the ‘New Course’ at Cheltenham in 1959, Arkle, officially the highest rated steeplechaser of all time, according to Timeform, did likewise between 1964 and 1966. All of these performances helped to capture the imagination of the general public and make the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and the Cheltenham Festival as a whole, what it is today.

The Champion Hurdle, the most prestigious hurdling event in the National Hunt calendar, was added to the Cheltenham Festival programme in 1927. The Queen Mother Champion Chase was inaugurated, as the National Hunt Two Mile Champion Chase, in 1959, but renamed in 1980 to commemorate the 80th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and in recognition of her enthusiastic support of National Hunt racing. The World Hurdle, originally known as the Stayers’ Hurdle, was first run in 1972 and, having been sponsored by Lloyds Bank, Waterford Crystal and Bonusprint over the years, was renamed when Ladbrokes took over sponsorship in 2005.

In 2005, the Cheltenham Festival underwent wholesale changes, not least its extension to four days rather than three, which required the introduction of five new races. Three further races have since been added, bringing the total to 27 for the four days.

Action, anticipation and atmosphere are the key components of the Cheltenham Festival and the famous Cheltenham ‘roar’, which greets the runners as the tape goes up for the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, is likely to be heard for as long as National Hunt racing exists. If you ever have a chance to go to the Cheltenham Festival, even for just one day, go; it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

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