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Dating back to the early 1800’s, Cheltenham Festival and Races are known to many across the whole of Britain. Yet how many actually know the History behind the renowned event?
Let’s go back to 1815 where the very first flat race meeting was held on Nottingham Hill. Over the next few years the sport was highly disregarded, with little recordings of races actually being noted. However by 1819 the event was moved to Cleeve Hill and gained such popularity that the whole affair was upped to three days!
Yet, our beloved festival did not always have the wave of support that it does now. In 1828, Reverend Francis Close openly addressed the racing and his distaste and abhorrence towards it. This escalated to a point where in 1829 there was an attack on the courses where beer bottles and rocks were being thrown at the Jockeys and their horses. To make matters worse before the next year’s races could start an act of Arson, believed to have been organised by the Reverend, occurred and led to the facilities burning to the ground!
As a result of this, the races were moved to Prestbury Park in 1831 but once the course was rebuilt from the ashes the races returned to Cleeve Hill four years later. Six miles over in Andoversford similar action was going on. In 1834 Andoversford held its first annual Steeplechase run. The track was four miles long and attracted 10,000- Now known as the oldest race in the jumping calendar.
However, disaster struck again in the following years when an Economic Depression began to sweep the nation, taking with it those extra pennies saved for a day out. The races soon found themselves in a losing battle and during 1843-1850 there was no flat racing at all. A last attempt to revive the moribund event came in 1851 but after 1855 there were no further meetings.
Jump in a car and go back to Andoversford and you’ll see equal misfortune occurring for the races. The land which was keeping the racing dream alive was sold in 1853 to an owner who forbade racing on his land. Slowly but surely, horse racing was being run into the ground. Though our story was not all doom and gloom. In 1860 the National Hunt Meeting had the first National Hunt Chase at Harborough Market. The Chase was held at Prestbury Park in 1904 and 1905 prior to its permanent settlement there in 1911 where, as per typical to Britain, it rained all throughout the day!
Racing on the other hand was on the brink of complete collapse but there was one last plot twist in its story.
In 1881 Prestbury Park was sold to Cheltenham’s Race Course founder Mr W.A.Baring Bingham, who originally had it as a stud farm before holding its first successful race meeting in 1898. Latter years gave way to Johnny Henderson taking over the land, bringing with him the formation of Race course Holdings Trust and media, such as the BBC, saw it as a key event to broadcast and brought with its coverage large investments.
Nowadays the celebrated affair brings people from all over the world, their passion reflecting the puissance that is Cheltenham Races. So there you have it! The history of Cheltenham Festival in a nutshell.
Perhaps now it’s a bit more than the “Horsing around” its portrayed to be.