When National Hunt racing first began at Cheltenham in the 19th century, no-one could possibly have imagined the huge event that it would become and the attention it would attract globally.
The precursor to what we now call the Cheltenham Festival was known as the Grand National Hunt Meeting, and was held at variety of courses until it finally found a permanent home at Prestbury Park in 1911 (which was newly built in 1902).
It quickly expanded from a two-day festival to three days, in which format it remained until a fourth day was added in 2005. With seven races each day, including 14 Grade 1 chases and hurdles, the Festival now attracts over a quarter of a million punters through the gate and offers prize money in excess of £4.5 million.
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Cheltenham Festival 2018
This year’s Cheltenham Festival runs from Tuesday 13 March – Friday 16 March, and each of the four days has its own theme, based around the feature races of the day — Champion Day, Ladies’s Day, St Patrick’s Thursday and Gold Cup Day. Ladies’ Day is always one of the highlights for the crowd, where country fashions at their best are on display, while St Patrick’s Thursday celebrates the long and distinguished connection between Cheltenham and Irish racing.
One of the features of the Cheltenham Festival is that the winners of the major races take on legend status. Festival winners are seen as being in a class of their own, as to win a major race like the Gold Cup or the Champion Hurdle requires horses not only to be at the peak of their form, but to beat the strongest possible fields in often trying conditions.
First run in 1924, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the pinnacle when to comes to steeplechase racing, and has produced many outstanding horses and fascinating rivalries over the years.
One of the most enduring legacies is that of Arkle (rated by Timeform as the greatest chaser of all time), who won three consecutive Gold Cups (1964 – 1966) and who had an ongoing rivalry at Cheltenham and beyond with Mill House (who won the Gold Cup in 1963). Arkle’s memory is kept alive with a statue at Cheltenham that still receives thousands of visitors and tributes today.
Another legendary name to have triumphed in the Gold Cup is Desert Orchid (or Dessie as his thousands of fans knew him), whose win extremely in heavy conditions in 1989 was voted as the greatest race ever by readers of the Racing Post.
The 21st century has also been blessed with a number of genuinely outstanding performers. First amongst these is Best Mate, who like Arkle won three consecutive Gold Cups (2002 – 2004).
This was followed by perhaps the greatest Cheltenham rivalry of them all — that of Kauto Star and Denman. The two stablemates (both trained by Paul Nicholls) dominated steeplechase racing during a period when they won three Gold Cups between them — Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, and Denman in 2008.
The Champion Hurdle, first run in 1927, has also produced its fair share of Cheltenham legends, with five horses winning the race three times, the most recent being Istabraq in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Other prominent names in Champion Hurdle history include Dawn Run, only the second mare to win the race in 1984 and the only horse to have won the Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double (the latter in 1986).
Riders, too, have etched their name into National Hunt racing history at the Cheltenham Festival. First amongst these has to be Ruby Walsh, the Irish jockey who has been the champion rider at Cheltenham 11 times and has ridden a total of 56 Festival winners. Other famous names that have taken the title include Sir A.P. McCoy (1997 & 1998), Peter Scudamore (1986, 1987 & 1991), JonJo O’Neil (1982 & 1984) and John Francombe (1981).