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Cheltenham Racecourse – National Hunt Racing at Its Finest

Finally, you found an organized and well-structured guide on all things regarding the Cheltenham Racecourse. We had been searching for some specific information about the track and what goes on there, but nothing was really standing out.

So here we are. We went ahead and created one ourselves. If you are interested in reading about the Cheltenham Festival or want to know more about the Steeplechasing Hall of Fame, you landed in the right spot.

We’ll also cover some important facts and details about the racecourse and let you know what else transpires at the property.

There are a lot of racecourses in England, but not all of them are positioned so perfectly in a gorgeous, amphitheater-like setting like Cheltenham. Follow along below and get fully acquainted with the splendid horse racing venue that’s sitting right in the middle of England.

Overview of Cheltenham Racecourse

Year Opened
1815
Location
Prestbury, Cheltenham, England
Owners
Jockey Club Racecourses
Course Type
National Hunt
Notable Races
The Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayer’s Hurdle
Official Website
Overview of Cheltenham Racecourse

Cheltenham Racecourse – Through the Years

It wasn’t easy tracking down the origins of how and why Cheltenham got started. What we do know is that back in 1815, a group of individuals met on Nottingham Hill to discuss the potential of hosting a horse race.

The result of that meeting was the first series of races on Cleeve Hill at the end of the summer in 1818. More than 30,000 locals stormed to the racecourse to check out what was happening.

We also know that there was plenty of backlash in the community, as not everyone was thrilled about the idea of going to watch horse races. In fact, the parish priest of Cheltenham, Reverend Francis Close, was so against it that he intervened in 1830.

Next thing you know, the grandstand was burned to the ground, and there were no more races at Cheltenham.

Following this unfortunate string of events, Prestbury Park became the new home of the racecourse. Fast forward to today, and that part hasn’t changed. Back then, racing in the neighboring village of Andoversford came in the form of jumping obstacles.

It took a little time, but by 1898, steeplechasing was the featured type of race in Prestbury Park.

As you will learn about in a section below, soon after that, some pretty significant races were born, and steeplechasing at Cheltenham Racecourse was, excuse the pun, “off to the races!”

Once the Jockey Club Racecourses (formerly known as Racecourse Holdings) was formed in 1964 to oversee and control Cheltenham, the racecourse was in good hands. Since they took over, numerous changes and upgrades have been performed to improve the property. Let’s take a peek.

Some Distinct Features of the Facility

In order to have an idea of what the racecourse is like, we need to explain some details about the facility. There are two turf courses, simply named the Old Course and the New Course.

A cross-country course is also present and is frequently used for the cross-country steeplechase events. With only two fences in the final 7/8 of a mile, the design of the New Course presents some unusual challenges for even the most skilled steeplechasers.

We want to take note of some of the notable changes that have occurred on site, namely in terms of renovating the grounds. There have been multiple projects completed over the years, such as increasing the size of the grandstand and improving the surrounding structures.

A fairly expansive and pricy project was finished at the end of 2015 in hopes of increasing the popularity of the steeplechase races.

We say pricey, and we mean that – £45 million, to be exact. This includes a new grandstand that is more than five stories high and is called the Princess Royal Stand.

The 2015 Refurbishment of Cheltenham Racecourse Included an Impressive New Grandstand
The new Princess Royal Stand is an impressive structure.

This lavish grandstand wasn’t the only thing upgraded during the nearly 2-year time period of alterations. Whether it was a new first aid room, the improved weighing area, or the small touches everywhere else, this project made a lasting impression.

You can probably imagine what this phenomenal facelift means to the Cheltenham Festival every March.

The Cheltenham Festival

When it comes to the sport of jump racing, the Cheltenham Festival is second only to the Grand National at Aintree in terms of importance. Anyone who pays any attention to the National Hunt calendar knows that for three days every March, all the action is taking place at Cheltenham.

They try and schedule the festival to land on or around St. Patrick’s Day. Start imagining a group of Irish men having a few pints and heading to the racecourse on the 17th day in March. It can get a wee bit rowdy – and that’s quite the understatement.

The four-day extravaganza showcases events of all shapes and sizes. There are typically between 25 and 30 races, many of which are at the Grade-I level. For further information, please take a look at our complete guide on the following page.

For the purposes of this page, we decided to focus on four of the most acclaimed races and reveal why they are so respected.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup

If you want to know about the most highly-regarded non-handicap steeplechase event in all of the United Kingdom, stop searching around. You have arrived at that portion of the page. The Cheltenham Gold Cup takes place on the Friday or fourth and final day of the festival and represents the “granddaddy” of races of its kind.

The size of the prize pool has changed over the years but is always quite substantial. For example, the 2016 edition featured a £575,000 purse with more than £325,000 of that going to the first-place horse.

The famous race last 5,331 meters, which is a little more than 3 ¼ miles. Only horses aged five or more are allowed to compete in the Gold Cup. They better be in good shape, as it takes quite the stamina to jump over the 22 fences that present themselves. The first Gold Cup at Cheltenham came back in 1924 and was moved to the New Course in 1959.

There is always excitement here, although don’t expect to ever see another horse win five of these in a row like Golden Miller did from 1932-1936.

This is more than the four wins that Irish jockey Pat Taaffe accumulated during his career at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

While the sweet spot for the average age of the winning horse seems to be around 7 or 8 years old, we have seen a pair of 12-year-olds claim titles in the prestigious event. Silver Fame won in 1951 as a 12-year-old gelding, while What A Myth got the job done in 1969 at the same age. It is unlikely this feat will be matched anytime soon, as Cool Dawn in 1998 was the last horse over the age of 9 to win this race.

Speaking of 9-year-old horses in this event, that is exactly how old Poet Prince was in 1941 when he ran a blistering time of 6:15.6, a record that still stands today.

Champion Hurdle

The Cheltenham Festival kicks off the events with several Grade-I races on the first day, the most admired one being the Champion Hurdle. Inaugurated in 1927, the Champion Hurdle lasts 3,298 meters, which is roughly a little more than 2 miles.

Unlike the Gold Cup, four-year-old horses are allowed to compete. They actually get a break and get to carry 8 fewer pounds than the horses who are five and older. While the horse may mind the 11+ stone that they have to carry, their owners aren’t as concerned. After all, they get their piece of the £400,000 purse, which includes a handsome payout of £227,800 to first place.

You can easily see why victory in this race is so highly sought-after!

Five horses have won this race three straight times, so it’s hard to pick the most dominant horse of all time at the Champion Hurdle. The most recent horse to accomplish this feat was Istabraq. The gelding captured his third consecutive win here in 2000 as an 8-year-old.

Perhaps the most impressive performance ever witnessed in the Champion Hurdle came thanks to Annie Power. The 8-year-old mare set a new record for the fastest time ever recorded, narrowly eclipsing the previous mark set by Jezki in 2014.

It seems as though the horses are getting faster, and the jockeys are getting better at maneuvering around the course. Don’t be surprised to see this time get even quicker in the coming years.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

In between the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Cup, you can find the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The 2-mile Grade-I event is only open to horses who have reached their fifth birthday and are willing to carry nearly 12 stone in additional weight. Another difference about this race is that it is run on the Old Course as opposed to the New Course.

With only 12 obstacles to clear, this is perhaps the least difficult of the races we talk about. This is due to the fact that fewer jumps and less distance to cover means there is less time for things to go wrong. Overall, it is a smoother ride than the aforementioned races.

With that being said, this is still the most admired minimum-distance event in the sport of National Hunt. When people show up on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival, chances are it is to come see the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The first Queen Mother Champion Chase (QMCC) took place in 1959, although under a different alias. Back then, it was called the National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase. Once the Queen Mother (wife of King George VI) turned 80 years old in 1980, the name was permanently switched to the one you see today.

We have seen a number of horses win this event twice, but only one was able to capture a trio of Queen Mother Champion Chases. Badsworth Boy won three in a row from 1983-1985, all three with jockey Robert Earnshaw. Pat Taaffe and Barry Geraghty share the record for most QMCC wins by a jockey with five.

It seems that age is “just a number” here at the Queen Mother Champion Chase. We have seen quite a few 10- and 11-year-old horses find success here. However, only one 12-year-old has finished first here. That was Skymas in 1977, ridden by Irish jockey Mouse Morris.

Stayer’s Hurdle

The third day at the Cheltenham Festival has six races, three of which are of the Grade-I status. While the Queen Mother Champion Chase is the most significant short-distance race in all of National Hunt chasing, it’s the Stayer’s Hurdle that is the most well-known long-distance run.

The 3-mile hurdle race started all the way back in 1912 and is open to horses who are four years old or more. When Aftermath won the inaugural Stayer’s Hurdle, the prize was £100. Compare that to the more than £156,000 that More of That won in 2014, and you get an idea of just how big this race has become.

Some may remember this event as the “World Hurdle,” the name chosen by title sponsor Ladbrokes when they were in command from 2005-2015. When Sun Bets took over as the lead sponsor in 2017, they decided to go back to the original name.

When Inglis Drever won this race for the third time in 2008, many thought it was unlikely that another horse would accomplish this same feat. After all, Inglis Drever is referred to as one of the greatest staying hurdlers of all time. To the disbelief of many, the very next year, another gelding started a streak of his own.

The reason that Inglis Drever isn’t regarded as the top staying hurdler to ever live is because of what Big Buck’s achieved next.

Big Buck’s won an incredible four straight Stayer’s Hurdles from 2009-2012, each time being ridden by Irishman Ruby Walsh. This cemented the gelding’s status as the most prolific staying hurdler who ever competed.

Visiting Cheltenham Racecourse

If you haven’t had the luxury of taking a trip to the racecourse in Cheltenham, you really ought to schedule a trip. It’s not every time you go to a racecourse that you find yourself sitting in an open-air, amphitheater-like setting.

Before we break down how the grandstands are set up, we’ll give you a little bit of information on how to get to the racecourse.

If you are fortunate enough to lock up a seat on a private aircraft and fly straight into Gloucestershire Airport, more power to you. It’s less than four miles from Cheltenham Racecourse, and you won’t have the hassle of driving very far.

However, chances are you will have to fly commercially. You’ll have two options that are roughly the same distance from Cheltenham. Bristol Airport in North Somerset has plenty of flights to choose from and is about 50 miles (80 km) away. If you are coming from north of Cheltenham, Birmingham Airport is just a couple minutes further away at about 56 miles (90 km).

Once you get to the Cheltenham, you will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. As far as where you will be watching the races from goes, that depends on what enclosure you will be sitting in.

Seating Arrangements

The most exclusive enclosure is the “Club” level. This is where you will find the most upscale food and beverages, along with the best views. If you are fortunate enough to grab hold of a ticket or badge that gets you into the Club enclosure, definitely take advantage. It also gets you full access to the next enclosure, the Tattersalls.

The Tattersalls is a very popular area where folks will be eating, drinking, betting, and watching the races. There are places to shop, keeping even the non-horse-racing enthusiasts busy.

No shortage of fun at the Tattersalls, that’s for sure. This is also the location of the British Steeplechasing Hall of Fame, which opened in 1994. Consider this the “middle” of the three enclosures.

The “Best Mate” enclosure is the cheapest and easiest way to gain entry to Cheltenham Racecourse. Although you won’t have direct access to the restaurants and shopping, there will still be plenty of food and beverage options. Thanks to its location, the view from the Best Mate is actually quite good.

There Are Several Ways to View the Racing at Cheltenham, Including the Best Mate Enclosure
The Best Mate Enclosure is across the track from the main grandstand and other enclosures.

Regardless of what enclosure you wind up in, you are bound to have a swell time. Just be aware that the pricier the ticket, the more freedom and more choices you get.

So you know about the Cheltenham Festival, and you know about all the big races that are held there annually. Now that we’ve told you about the different seating arrangements, you are probably wondering what other events are held on site. What else does the property have to offer?

Everyman Theatre

If you are willing to make the short 10-minute drive from the racecourse to Everyman Theatre, you are in for quite a show. to see what exactly is on tap next, but there are always great shows on deck. From musicals to comedians to magicians, you can find all sorts of entertainment at Everyman Theatre.

If you plan on heading to the Cheltenham Festival and want some tickets to one of the shows, don’t wait too long to make your plans. You won’t be the only race-goer that wants to check out the theatre.

Wychwood Festival

The first weekend of June is a busy weekend at the Cheltenham Racecourse, and it has nothing to do with racing horses. Try and imagine a three-day festival of events that includes anything from music and comedy shows to family-orientated workshops.

They have a Headphone Disco for all of our “raving” readers, but they also have literature teachings for children. Talk about a festival that has it all!

The University of Gloucestershire and the Wychwood Brewery combine forces to organize the string of events. It’s basically a gigantic party that last for three days with an abundance of things to do. Whether you are a man, woman, teenager, or small child, you won’t run out of activities or things to do at the Wychwood Festival.

The Takeaway

Cheltenham Racecourse is a true gem when it comes to racecourses in England. Most avid fans of National Hunt racing already knew this, but not everybody falls into that category. We wanted to explain what the racecourse was like by talking about both the Old Course and the New Course.

The Cheltenham Festival is as big as it gets in the sport of jump racing. It was imperative to talk about the featured events on the schedule so that you could get a feel for the immense anticipation that surrounds them.

We wanted to uncover details about the seating arrangements and what else there is to do in the area.

Between the Everyman Theatre and the racecourse itself, you don’t need to worry about running out of pleasurable activities. If you want to plan a vacation or schedule a trip to Cheltenham, you know how to get there.

We mentioned the two closest main airports, although if you are fancy enough to hop on a private jet straight to Gloucestershire, be our guest! Once you get to Cheltenham, all the fun awaits!