A racing pub quiz might include the questions “When was the Cheltenham Gold Cup first run?” Those in the know might well answer 1924, and the anoraks amongst them might add that a horse called Red Splash won the race. But they would be wrong.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup goes back more than 100 years before the first jumping contest at Prestbury Park, and even that race was not held at the first venue for racing in Cheltenham. Racing began on Nottingham Hill in 1815, which anyone coming to Cheltenham on the steam train from Winchcombe will pass just before reaching Bishop Cleeve.
Racing was short lived there, and in 1818 moved closer to home with a two day meeting in July on Cleeve Hill. In the following year the meeting was extended to three days, and the Gold Cup introduced. This was a 3 mile flat race, first won by a horse called Spectre, who picked up a prize of £100 guineas for his owner.
As the attraction of racing increased, so did the crowds, and it’s reported that over 30,000 were coming by the middle of the 1820s. In 1825 a large grandstand was built to accommodate some spectators, and attendances continued to grow with some estimates suggesting that by the end of the decade the racing was attracting 50,000 people.
As happened in many other places, this was too much for the local clergy, and Cheltenham’s parish priest, Rev Francis Close preached against the evils of gambling and the racecourse. He stirred up such strong feeling that stones and bottles were thrown at the jockeys and horses in 1830, and before the following year’s meeting, the grandstand had been burnt down.
It was then that Lord Ellenborough, Lord Privy Seal in the Duke of Wellington’s Government, whose family seat was at Southam House, near Cheltenham, offered some of his land, and in 1831 racing took place at Prestbury Park for the first time. Over the next 70 years, meetings continued to take place at several venues around the town, before finally settling at the Festival’s present home in 1902.
All this time, racing at Cheltenham was confined to flat races. Steeplechases had been run at Andoversford, just seven miles away, since 1834, and were not run at Cheltenham until 1898, and it was to be a further 13 years before the National Hunt Committee settled on Cheltenham as the permanent home for its annual National Hunt Meeting.
Thus, the first Cheltenham Festival took place in 1911. And with the occasional interruption for World War Two and foot and mouth disease, it has taken place every year since.