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A History Of Cheltenham Race Festival

As the jockeys saddle up and ride out for the first days races of this iconic four day festival of jump racing, it’s worth taking a few moments to look into the background and the history of this highlight of the British horse racing calendar.

This time last year, the pretty Gloucestershire market town of Cheltenham was running at full gallop in preparation for the invasion of visitors who were about to arrive from all parts of the UK and Ireland to take part in the upcoming National Hunt Festival of Horse Racing.

One of the two major events of the British “jump” season, second only to the Aintree Grand National meeting, saw well over 150,000 visitors on the course over the four days of the meeting, betting more than a million pounds on the outcomes of the races. Sadly, this glorious festival, due to the Covid virus pandemic will not happen this year. Races will take place in front of empty stands, the famous Cheltenham roar will not be heard, and winners will be clapped home only by owners and trainers. How sad!

The Festival Developes

Traditionally, the Festival – it didn’t become known as the Festival until 1907, when the Jockey Club, the governing body of British Horse racing decreed it would be so called - has been held almost every year in the third week of March since 1861 - the third week of March being shrewdly selected since St. Patricks Day almost always conveniently fell in that third week ensuring a large visiting contingent of Irish horses along with their owners, trainers and, of course, their supporters. Ironically, the “festival” name was applied in one of the few years when the meeting did not actually take place in Cheltenham.

The meetings which would later be designated the festival began in Cheltenham in 1861, although the town and its’ course did not become its official home until 1902 when a new course was developed specifically for the sport of National Hunt horse racing. From 1906 to 1910 the Festival was temporarily moved to Warwick racecourse while improvements were made to the facilities at Cheltenham. From 1911, however, the meetings returned to their spiritual home and have taken place there every year since, interrupted only by World Wars, and an epidemic of foot and mouth disease in 2001!

Highlight of the meeting, and the race which attracts most media attention, and produces most turnover, dare one say “profit” for the bookmaking fraternity is the Gold Cup, but this was not always so. In its’ early years the main race, from 1912, was the Stayers Hurdle – a grueling gallop over three miles and twelve hurdles – which offered at the time the magnificent sum of £100 for the winner and £10 for the runner up, the winner being sold after the race for a price of £50. During its’ century long existence, the race has undergone many incarnations, according to who was its’ sponsor, and is now known as “the Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle”. Prize money in 2019 was £325,000 with £182878 for the winner – and he wasn’t sold. How times change! 

Cheltenham Festival - A Recent History

When the race takes place this year, on St.Patricks day, all eyes will be on Paisley Park who won the race in 2019 and was hotly tipped to repeat his success last year. Unfortunately, as is well known, tips and results don’t always coincide and last year’s race was won by 50/1 outsider Lisnagar Oscar. No doubt Paisly Park will be out for revenge!

At this years’ Festival there will also be other horses looking to repeat the successes of previous years. On day one, for example, we have the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where previous winners Epatante (2020) and the now ten-year-old Buveur d’Air (2017) will, among others, contest the outcome. However, no matter which horse wins, Mr. J.P. McManus will be rubbing his hands in glee as he owns both of them and will extend his years of dominance in a race won by his horses over the last five years. The race itself is a testing event, requiring skill over hurdles, speed over the ground and stamina to stay the course and finish well up the renowned Cheltenham hill. And if it’s raining and the going is heavy ….....The event should prove a fascinating experience.

Another long-established race is to be found on day two of the meeting. Beginning life in1959 as the National Hunt Two Mile Champion Chase (a bit of a mouthful), it was renamed in 1980 the Queen Mother Champion Chase to honour the eightieth birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen mother, who had long been a supporter of national hunt racing, and the Cheltenham Festival in particular. Unfortunately, she never managed to achieve a win with one of her horses at the Festival, coming closest with a second place in 1976 with a horse called Game Spirit. 

The race itself is a two-mile test of speed and jumping skills, requiring jockeys to draw on all their experience to achieve a winning position. Since 2013, the race has been dominated by horses trained by Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, who can count six of the last eight winners between them. Last year's winner Politologue, trained by Nicholls, runs again this year, no doubt hoping to repeat his victory.

The Jewel in the Crown

However exciting these and the other races prove to be, there can be no argument that the main event is the Cheltenham Gold cup, possibly the single most important race in the British jump racing calendar. It’s the race every trainer wants to win, the winner is the horse every jockey wants to ride, winning owners can make themselves small fortunes from the result, and, of course, every punter wants to risk his money on what he hopes will be the first horse past the post. On this race alone, it is calculated that more than a million pounds will change hands. Big race, indeed!

The race itself takes place over a distance of three miles, two furlongs and 72 yards and involves jumping over 22 fences. This year prize money of over £600000 is on offer, with £350000 plus going to the winner and since its’ first running in 1924, many heroes have emerged, both of the four legged and two-legged variety, writing their names in the history books for future generations of fans to marvel at their achievements. The races of 2007 to 2009, for example, presented the horse racing public with two steeds of such historic qualities.

Heroes of the chase

In 2007, competing in his first Gold Cup, although not on his first appearance on the Cheltenham course, a horse by the name of Kauto Star crossed the line in front of the field to record his first Gold Cup win. The previous year, as 2/1 favourite for the Queen Mothers Champion Chase he had failed to perform and had fallen at the third fence. However, the Gold Cup was to provide a verydifferent result.  At a starting price of 5/2 and favourite to boot, he looked destined for another magnificent failure, trailing for most of the race in the middle of the field. Gradually his jockey eased him through the equine throng to hit the front as he went over the fence second from home. Despite hitting the final fence, Kauto Star stayed on strongly to win by 21/2 lengths, and write his name in the record book. Moreover, punters and experts alike began to talk of him as the winner of the next Gold Cup in 2008.

But this was not to be. Trainer Paul Nicholls, who had brought Kauto Star to the UK from France for the 2004 season and groomed him successfully for the Gold Cup had another horse of equally good breeding and potential by the name of Denman and planned to set up a “cup-final” of a race between the two. Throughout the season the two had won race after race racking up formidable unbeaten records, but were never entered in the same race – until the Gold Cup. This would be the decider for the Order of Merit title awarded for the best National Hunt horse of the season. Kauto Star started the race as favourite, as expected, at a price of 10/11, Denman was priced at 9/4, but the odds would be turned on their heads. After a first lap around the course with no horse in the field showing as a potential winner, Denman hit the front and gradually moved away to win by seven lengths, Kauto Star running in second. An unexpected result, but hardly a major shock considering the form of the two horses over the season – and now for 2009

When the field lined up, Denman was priced at 7/1 but Kauto Star had the shorter price of 7/4. The question was, however, not which horse would win but could Kauto Star become the first horse to regain the Cup after losing it the previous season. The race started slowly with no one horse showing an inclination to stamp his authority in the field. As it progressed and the speed of the field became faster, Kauto Star moved through the field and finally hit the front three fences from home, pulling clear to win by a phenomenal eleven lengths and settling for good the debate as to which was the better horse. Denman did come in second but at eleven lengths adrift this finish did constitute a sound beating.  And Kauto Star had achieved something never done before – regain the Gold Cup.

Back this years Gold Cup Winner with Ladbrokes

A freak of Nature and a National Hero

If Kauto Star is recalled as one of the all time greats, then there is one other horse which perhaps achieved more to make him memorable. His name – Arkle. The only horse to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in consecutive years. Between 1964 and 1966, Arkle romped home undefeated at Cheltenham in a racing sequence which saw him win 27 of his 35 starts. His first triumph in 1964 saw him defeat the winner of the previous years Gold Cup, Mill House, by five lengths. His starting odds for this race were 7/4, the last time he started a race at less than odds-on and such was his already established reputation that only four horses in total contested the race,

The following year, 1965, saw him repeat his victory over Mill House, this time by twenty lengths at odds of 3/10. !966 was yet another winning start, one of five in races as he went through the season unbeaten. His starting odds for this his final Gold Cup win were 1/10, and he fully justified this unbelievable price, winning by a distance of thirty lengths, this despite ploughing straight through a fence early in the race rather than going over it.

Sadly, ploughing through rather than over a fence lead to the end of Arkle racing career, a career which might have gone on for another five years or so, but for the injury this fence caused him. In December 1966, in a race a Kempton Park as part of his build up to the next Gold Cup, he fractured a bone in his foot. Normal horses would usually be pulled up after such an injury to prevent further damage, but Arkle not only continued but actually finished second in the race. After this episode one racing commentator described him as an unbelievable freak of nature. Despite fully recovering from the broken bone Arkle never raced again. His owner, out of deference to his greatness, used him as his personal steed riding him for his pleasure at the gallops where he trained in Ireland. At the unusually early age of thirteen Arkle had to be put down due to advanced brucellosis – but this was not the end of the story for Arkle.

Through his efforts and triumphs Arkle had become a national hero in Ireland, where his tremendous strength and stamina were attributed to drinking two pints of Guiness a day. Such was the hero worship that at one point “Arkle for President” signs began to appear all over Dublin, and following his death, his skeleton was secured for the Irish National stud and put on display at its headquarters in Kildare. What a complement!

So, who will be the heroes of this year's festival? Is there another Arkle quietly lining up the first or second of a run of three wins? Will the winner of the Gold Cup from 2019, come good and regain the Cup like Kauto Star? Or will some unknown Jockey, or an unfancied horse make a name for himself in one of the races beside the Gold Cup. All that can be said for certain is that the Cheltenham Festival, as always. The only negative is that, because of the Covid pandemic, the winners will not be cheered home by the “Cheltenham roar” -the glorious sound of more than 150000 people raising the roof on the stands with their celebrations.

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