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Tracing The Festival’s Roots

Author: John Berry


This week, of course, one can’t avoid hearing about the Cheltenham Festival. It is the biggest jumps race meeting in the British Isles, which means that it’s the biggest jumps meeting in the world. One could turn up in any racing environment, anywhere in the world and mention the Cheltenham Festival, and the likelihood would be that those present would know what you mean. But what do we mean? Where did the title ‘Cheltenham Festival’ come from? When first was the meeting thus described? It’s a bit like the Triple Crown, or Royal Ascot, or Glorious Goodwood: we all use the term, but we don’t know when or whence it came. For most of the 20th century, the meeting was not the ‘Cheltenham Festival’.

It was the ‘National Hunt Meeting’. And we can say for certain that the National Hunt Meeting didn’t start out as the Cheltenham Festival because it didn’t start out at Cheltenham. Through the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century, the highlight of the National Hunt Meeting was the National Hunt Steeplechase. (It certainly wasn’t either the Gold Cup or the Champion Hurdle: those races were not inaugurated until 1924 and 1927 respectively). The National Hunt Steeplechase was regarded as the amateurs’ Grand National. In the age of ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’ when it was considered infra dig to play sport professionally (and, don’t forget, it wasn’t until the latter years of the 20th century that professional athletes were eligible to compete in the Olympic Games, although in the final years of the amateur era the rules tended to be bent about as far as possible as regards the definition of amateur status).

Consequently, in many people’s minds the National Hunt Steeplechase was Britain’s biggest steeplechase and the Grand National the second most important. The National Hunt Steeplechase was first run in 1860 at Market Harborough in Leicestershire. It was steeplechasing at its purest: a race over open farmland across some of the best hunting country in the land. Its second edition took place at Cheltenham and then the race went back to Market Harborough. It then spent a while moving around ‘the shires’, the hunting counties in the midlands. Rugby and Burton Lazars (near Leicester) both hosted it, as did Bedford. As it became more established, it became a nationwide moveable feast, its venues including Crewkerne in Somerset, Cottenham in Cambridgeshire, Abergavenny in Wales, Bristol in Somerset, Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, Bogside in Scotland.

It was what it said on the tin: it was a national hunt steeplechase. It gradually became more usual to see the National Hunt Steeplechase, and thus the National Hunt Meeting, run at major racing centres: Liverpool, Malton, Lincoln, Sandown, Hurst Park, Gatwick, and even Newmarket, before it spent two consecutive years at Cheltenham (1904 and ’05). It then spent five years at Warwick before returning once and for all to Cheltenham in 1911. The National Hunt Meeting has been run at Cheltenham ever since, although since maybe the 1980s it has generally been better known as the Cheltenham Festival. From its beginnings to the present day, the National Hunt Meeting has been constantly evolving, and that doesn’t merely refer to its regular changes of home in the early years or the more recent ‘rebranding’ of the change of its name.

Its most obvious recent evolutions include the addition of a fourth day and the addition of extra races such as a mares’ hurdle (which has more recently been augmented by a mares’ novices’ hurdle), a conditional jockeys’ hurdle, a National Hunt Flat race, a three mile novices’ hurdle, a two and a half mile ‘weight for age’ steeplechase et al. It is hard to keep abreast of the changes, but ‘twas ever thus. Throughout the history of the meeting, races have regularly been added or subtracted. An early addition to the National Hunt Meeting was the Grand Annual Steeplechase. This is actually the oldest race at the meeting (in fact, it is the oldest steeplechase in Great Britain, its inauguration in 1834 preceding the first Grand National by five years) but it isn’t the most longstanding.

It was not at the National Hunt Meeting at the outset; in fact, it was approximately 70 years old when it was added to the card. First run at Andoversford in Gloucestershire (which is now the site of a ‘point to point’ course) in April 1834, the Grand Annual Steeplechase was discontinued in the 1860s and did not reappear until early in the 20th century. It was initially revived at various courses in the hunting country in the midland shires including at Melton Mowbray, Leicester and Warwick. When the National Hunt Meeting made its final move from Warwick to Cheltenham, the Grand Annual Steeplechase followed suit and has been part of the National Hunt Meeting or Cheltenham Festival ever since.

As mentioned above, the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle were inaugurated in 1924 and ’27 respectively. As its name implies, the aim with the Champion Hurdle from the start was to oust Sandown’s Imperial Cup from its position as Britain’s premier hurdle race. By the 1950s this aim had been achieved. The stark contrast between the mundanity of last Saturday’s Imperial Cup compared to the fanfare of this week’s Champion Hurdle says it all. The Gold Cup, too, eventually managed to work its way to pole position. It is probably fair to say that in recent years it has finally surpassed the Grand National in being regarded as Britain’s biggest race over fences.

The National Hunt Two Mile Champion Chase (now Queen Mother Champion Chase) was inaugurated in 1959 and almost immediately became Britain’s premier two mile steeplechase, in part thanks to the boost given to its status by one of its early winners, the mighty Irish-trained champion Fortria who scored for the Arkle trainer and jockey combination of Tom Dreaper and Pat Taafe in 1960 and ’61. When jumps racing resumed after the Second World War, the first post war National Hunt Meeting (in 1946) saw a new race named in honour of a local hero: the Kim Muir Steeplechase was inaugurated to honour the memory of Kim Muir, a top class amateur rider from Cheltenham who had enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the war and lost his life in the retreat towards Dunkirk in May 1940.

Another hero was honoured when the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup Steeplechase was inaugurated in 1951, named in memory of Lord Anthony Mildmay of Flete, arguably the greatest figure in steeplechasing history who had died (missing, presumed drowned) the previous summer. The fact that the Mildmay of Flete Steeplechase has been run under another name since 2006 does not reflect any credit at all on the racecourse’s current management. Other changes to the meeting’s composition are shown by Lester Piggott’s record. Although best remembered as a Flat jockey, Lester rode over hurdles early in his career when he was fearing that increasing height and weight might push him into the winter game.

He rode a winner at the National Hunt Meeting in 1954, guiding Mull Sack (trained in Lambourn by his father Keith) to victory in a race which has long since disappeared from the roster: the Birdlip Selling Hurdle. Later that spring he won a race which now ranks as one of the festival’s Grade One contests, the Triumph Hurdle, on the Tommy Carey-trained Prince Charlemagne, except that at that stage it was run at Hurst Park. (The Triumph Hurdle was moved to Cheltenham’s April Meeting in 1965 following the closure of Hurst Park; it was subsequently added to the National Hunt Meeting’s programme in March 1968).

Possibly somebody knows who coined the term ‘Cheltenham Festival’, but I don’t. It is nowadays commonplace to refer to a major meeting as a Festival but, again, I don’t know when and how this came about. If anyone knows which racecourse in the British Isles can correctly claim to have held the first Festival (and when it did so) please let us know. It is a similar thing with ‘Royal Ascot’ and ‘Glorious Goodwood’. When were these meetings thus (re)named? Relatively recently, one can presume. As Ascot only held one meeting per year until after the Second World War and Goodwood did likewise until 1965, there was no need up to those points to use a term to differentiate the principal meeting held at each course from their lesser fixtures.

One can presume that the ‘Royal’ and ‘Glorious’ prefixes were added some time shortly afterwards. The great unknowns of the Triple Crowns in both Great Britain and the USA are when the term ‘Triple Crown’ was first used. Of Britain’s Triple Crown races, the St Leger was first run in 1776, the Derby in 1780 and the 2000 Guineas in 1809. It is not known when they were first regarded as three parts of a set. In fact, it is not known whether the connections of the horse whom we describe as the first Triple Crown winner (West Australian, who won all three races in 1853) knew that their horse had won a Triple Crown.

The likelihood is that they did not. We can, though, identify an early reference to the US Triple Crown. In May 1923 (one of 11 years in which the Preakness Stakes was run before the Kentucky Derby, something which is likely never to happen again) the New York Times contained an article previewing the Kentucky Derby in which there was a reference to the three races making up a triple crown. It is possible, but not certain, that this was the first reference. It was not for another seven years, though, that the term came into common usage. It did so then thanks to the Daily Racing Form correspondent Charles Hatton, who highlighted the victories of Gallant Fox in that year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes as having made him the winner of a Triple Crown.

We can worry about the Triple Crowns of Great Britain and the USA later in the spring. For the moment we shall concern ourselves with the National Hunt Meeting or Cheltenham Festival. Even that, though, can claim to be part of a Triple Crown, one of the jumping game’s most recent marketing gimmicks being a million pound bonus being put up for any horse who can complete the treble of the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, the King George VI Chase at Kempton in December and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. This bonus won’t be won this year, but that doesn’t matter because there will be headlines galore even without it being so.

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07 Aug 2018
Issue Number: Issue 647
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