Cheltenham Racecourse history
Cheltenham’s horseracing history stretches back to the Napoleonic Wars and encompasses nearly 200 years. During this time the Gloucestershire town’s name has become synonymous with the world’s best and most-loved betting festival.
Horseracing in Cheltenham began in 1815 when the first organised horseracing meeting was held on Nottingham Hill. Unlike the racing Cheltenham has become famous for, the races took place on the flat.
More races were held on Cleeve Hill, near the current Cheltenham racecourse site, from August 1818. The first race run for a “Gold Cup” was run in 1819, and within ten years 30,000 people were going to Cheltenham races for the two-day July festival that included the Gold Cup race.
The town of Cheltenham was booming during this period thanks to the creation of new spas that cashed in on the popularity of the mineral water wells near the town, which the rich leisured classes would visit to improve their health.
Cheltenham races inspire protests
Cheltenham’s parish priest, the Reverend Francis Close, wasn’t keen on horseracing (or, more particularly, betting on horseracing) as a leisure pursuit for his congregation, and used to preach against its evils. He led several protests against racing, including one in 1829 that saw rocks and bottles thrown at the Cheltenham runners and riders.
Things came to a head in 1830 when the Cheltenham racecourse grandstand was burnt down before the race meeting. To avoid a repeat, the organisers moved the venue for the 1831 race meeting, and racing took place at Prestbury Park – home of the modern Cheltenham Festival – for the first time.
Birth of steeplechasing in Cheltenham
Steeplechasing – racing over jumps, as in present day National Hunt horseracing – became popular in and around Cheltenham during the Victorian era, becoming established in nearby Andoversford from 1834 onwards. Although no steeplechase races took place on the present Cheltenham racecourse until 1898, jump racing arrived in Cheltenham for the first time in 1845 with a race from Noverton Lane across country to the Hewletts.
A proper racecourse was mapped out in Prestbury Park in 1865, but horseracing wasn’t properly re-established in Cheltenham until the beautifully named Mr Baring Bingham bought the course, erected railings and built a grandstand in 1898.
Cheltenham Races in the modern era
Bingham was rewarded when a big crowd attended a two-day Cheltenham Festival at the re-opened course in 1902 – the start of the modern era for Cheltenham Races.
National Hunt racing started in Cheltenham in 1904 with the course’s first four-mile steeplechase. This established Cheltenham as a major racecourse for jumps horseracing.
And Cheltenham’s reputation for “over the sticks” horseracing grew with the start, in 1924, of a three-mile-plus steeplechase, held in March, called the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The “Roaring Twenties” also saw the first running, in 1927, of another great Cheltenham Festival horse race, the Champion Hurdle.
By 1949, with racing booming in post-war Britain, the Festival had been extended to four days and was increasingly popular with Irish punters in part thanks to Cottage Rake’s success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Another Festival institution began in 1959 with the first running of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, named after the much-loved racing fan, patron and owner, who was turning up – and betting – at the Cheltenham Festival until she was more than 100 years old.
Prestbury Park’s facilities were improved during the 1960s, and work began on the present stands in 1979. It looks very different, but from the modern Cheltenham racecourse, nestled in the Chiltern Hills, punters can still see Cleeve Hill – where, two centuries ago, the history of Cheltenham racecourse began.