Cheltenham – the early years
Whisper it if you dare, but the first racing to take place in Cheltenham was on the Flat, when a meeting took place at Nottingham Hill in 1815.
Three years later, and Cleeve Hill saw its first fixture, but still the sport was of the Flat variety and it was proving to be a crowd-pleaser with around 30,000 in attendance for a two-day meeting in mid-summer, the highlight of which was the Gold Cup, a Flat race run over three miles.
As with other racecourses in the 1820s, the Cleeve Hill venue was growing in popularity but objections were being raised to the undesirable elements which racing attracted, not least by the local clergy. The end of the decade saw attempts to disrupt the racing, culminating in the grandstand being destroyed by a fire – a fate which was not unusual at the time for racecourse buildings.
The protests forced the transfer of the sport to Prestbury Park, Cheltenham’s current venue, in 1831, but still it was Flat racing which was taking place and it wasn’t until the end of the century that Steeplechasing was staged, when a meeting that had been run nearby for nearly 60 years was moved to Prestbury Park.
The Festival, as we know it today, was somewhat nomadic in its early years, with Market Harborough staging the inaugural fixture in 1860 and Warwick being the most frequent host and Cheltenham staging it from time to time.
But development work at Prestbury Park, including a new grandstand, resulted in jump racing’s governing body, the National Hunt Committee, electing to make Cheltenham the permanent home and so from 1911 the Festival, a term applied to the meeting early in the 18th century, has been held at the Gloucestershire track ever since.
Of the Championship races, the Stayers Hurdle (now the World Hurdle) was the first to take place, initiated in 1912. The County Hurdle became the principal race on the opening day with the Gold Cup a supporting feature.
However, the Gold Cup grew quickly in prestige from its first staging in 1924, when the meeting now ran for three days, and it too became a Championship race.
Yet despite the progress the Festival was making, Aintree was still seen as the principal National Hunt meeting and the Gold Cup was used by trainers as a stepping stone to the Grand National.
When the Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927 it was immediately designated a Championship race, as was the Queen Mother Chase in 1959, to complete the quartet.