For anyone involved in National Hunt racing in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, the Cheltenham Festival, staged annually in mid-March, is the meeting around which the whole season revolves. Originally known simply as the ‘National Hunt Meeting’, the Cheltenham Festival became a permanent fixture at Prestbury Park, on the northern outskirts of Cheltenham, in 1911. Under the auspices of Frederick Cathcart, Clerk of the Course, the Cheltenham Festival flourished.
The original two-day fixture was extended to three days in 1923 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup was inaugurated, as a steeplechase, in 1924. The Champion Hurdle, the two-mile hurdling championship, followed in 1927, but the other two events that constitute the ‘feature’ races at the modern fixture were much later addition to the Festival programme. The two-mile steeplechasing championship, originally known simply as National Hunt Two Mile Champion Chase, but renamed as the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1980, was inaugurated in 1959, and the long-distance hurdling championship, the Stayers’ Hurdle was inaugurated in 1972.
The Cheltenham Festival continued to evolve, with various races added and removed from the programme over the years, but the next major changes came in 2005, when it was extended to four days. At that stage, five new races, including the Grade One Ryanair Chase – effectively, an intermediate chasing ‘championship’– and the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, were added and, more recently, supplemented by four more, making a total of 28.
Featuring a total of 12 races at Grade One level, at least three of which are staged on each of the four days, the Cheltenham Festival is, understandably, hugely popular with racegoers. Collectively, the four days attract over 200,000 spectators, including an estimated 10,000 from Ireland, and the famous Cheltenham ‘roar’ – that is, the cacophony of noise from the grandstands that greets the runners at the start of the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – has been measured at nearly 120 decibels, or the same intensity as a firework display.