AUTHOR: Star Sports Content

SHARPE MIND: When Did Cheltenham Festival Start?!

In this week’s Star Sports blog, sports betting PR legend Graham Sharpe delves deep into the history of Cheltenham Festival, digging out some fascinating facts from the very early days, in the build-up to the 2023 edition of the Festival.

After reading this, make sure to check out all the rest of our Cheltenham Festival 2023 content!

ALL followers of jump racing eagerly anticipate the annual arrival of the Cheltenham Festival, probably the most respected and competitive meeting of the season, where equine legends are created.

But when and how did the Cheltenham Festival begin and evolve?

A five year old mare called Miss Tidmarsh is the first named horse recorded to have won a race at a Cheltenham course, doing so at Cleeve Hill on August 25, 1818.

Some historic records suggest there was a Cheltenham Gold Cup run at Cleeve Hill in 1819 – albeit this one was a 3m flat race, won by a horse called Spectre, ridden by one Mr Brodenham. But racing in this now iconic area was not supported by everyone in the area, and in 1827 the Rector of Cheltenham, the Reverend Francis Close, was railing against the sport as he preached to his flock, declaring that ‘every species of profligacy – adultery, fornication, hatred, wrath, drunkenness…..are promoted by a race week. If you wish your child to plunge into the world’s vain pleasures, send him to Cheltenham races.’

So, perhaps not much has changed from then to now, to judge by my own experiences of and observations at, the meeting! Of course, many took those comments as a great recommendation, and flocked along to the sports – just to check, of course, that the Rev was accurate in his description.

By 1829 anti-race meeting protests were occurring at Cheltenham and in 1830 the grandstand was burned down.

Eventually, an uneasy peace prevailed, and ‘in April, 1902, over two days(9th-10th) ‘the Cheltenham Festival was run at Prestbury Park for the first time’ insists respected racing writer Alan Lee in his 1985 book, ‘Cheltenham Racecourse’ (Pelham).

The newly named meeting rapidly became a fixture on the racing calendar and a new Members’ Stand was opened for the 1911 meeting.

World War 1 was underway when the 1915 Festival began, but hostilities saw the course’s luncheon room being used as a troop hospital, having been taken over by the Red Cross the previous October.

Some patients were permitted to watch the racing from the balconies and lawns. But this was the last meeting until the Festival returned in March, 1920.

The final race of the 1921 Festival, the County Hurdle, went to Waterbottle, with well fancied 5/2 shot, Kirkharle finishing 4th of 12, ridden by Ernie Piggott, also riding regularly in France and Belgium at that time. Ernie’s son, Keith, born in 1904, would also father a son – this one named Lester.

By 1923 the Festival meeting had been increased to three days, with the Gold Cup introduced in 1924, followed three years later by the Champion Hurdle.

Racing continued at Cheltenham until the end of 1941 when another War interrupted proceedings, as the course was requisitioned by, first, British, and then American troops.
Racing did not return until January 6, 1945.

In 1954 the BBC began live coverage of the Festival, with Peter O’Sullevan commentating, with over a million tuning in. It was first shown in colour in 1970.

In his 2011 book, The Cheltenham Festival, racing correspondent of The Spectator, Robin Oakley almost delivered his idea of when the Festival began – but not quite…’The National Hunt Chase…became acknowledged…as the emblematic centrepiece of NH racing. For years it moved from one course to another. But in 1911 the Steeplechase Company (Cheltenham) Ltd agreed terms…. to end its life as a touring attraction and to be held from then on at Prestbury Park, Cheltenham. So was born the Cheltenham Festival…..’

To get another perspective on the question, I also consulted the greatly respected Tim Cox, owner of the most comprehensive library of racing books in the UK and, almost certainly, the rest of the world. He consulted the British Newspaper archive, and this is Tim’s take:

‘Cheltenham has had a number festivals. Early on the cricket festival (August) and the music festival (November) dominated, but there were others.

‘I have put the references in date order but I did not find them in that order. The first reference to the Grand National Hunt Festival was linked to Sandown in 1878. The first reference that I found to the National Hunt festival at Cheltenham was in 1904. In 1922 there is a reference to the Cheltenham Jumping Festival.

‘I think we can sort out the muddle. The National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup was first run in 1860 and moved round racecourses. In 1861 (its second year) it was first run at Cheltenham. It was next run at Cheltenham in 1904 on a new course set up at Prestbury Park in 1902. It was run at Cheltenham again in 1905 and finally settled at Cheltenham in 1911.

‘I think we can say that the first ‘Cheltenham National Hunt Festival’ was held in 1904 on a course set up in 1902 with the purpose of attracting the National Hunt Chase to Cheltenham on a permanent basis.’

I’m not going to disagree with Tim, but it seems to be the case that no one can be 100% sure just when Cheltenham acquired what is now known as the Festival meeting……….perhaps someone could let Cheltenham Racecourse know this – as at time of writing, they had failed to answer, or even respond to the phone call I made to them, or any of the queries I emailed them pertaining to this question…….hopefully they may read this and find out the answer!




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