Staged annually in March at Prestbury Park, approximately two miles north of Cheltenham town centre in Gloucestershire, South West England, the Cheltenham Festival represents the pinnacle of National Hunt racing in Britain. Indeed, the Cheltenham Festival is often referred to, justifiably, as the ‘Olympics’ of National Hunt racing.
Nowadays, the Festival features a total of 28 races, spread across four days, and including competition at the highest level across a range of disciplines and distances. With at least three Grade One races on each of the four days and total prize money in excess of £4.5 million, the Cheltenham Festival attracts the creme de la creme of equine talent from Britain, Ireland and further afield. One of the so-called ‘Big Four’ races – namely the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup – is the feature race on each of the four days.
Indeed, the winners of any of these races and, especially, multiple winners, carve their names, indelibly, into the annals of Cheltenham Festival history. The roll of honour for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for example, includes legendary names such as Golden Miller, Arkle and Best Mate, who won the ‘Blue Riband’ event eleven times between them. Likewise, the list of Champion Hurdle winners reads like a who’s who of two-mile hurdling talent, featuring such luminaries as Night Nurse, Monksfield and Istabraq, to name but three.
Badsworth Boy, who won the Queen Mother Champion Chase three years running in 1983, 1984 and 1985, remains the most successful horse in the history of the feature race on day two, while Big Buck’s is the most successful horse in the recent history of the Stayers’ Hurdle, with four consecutive wins between 2009 and 2012. Remarkably, though, the record for the most wins in the same race at the Cheltenham Festival is held by Quevega, who won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle six years running between 2009 and 2014.
The history of the Cheltenham Festival can be traced back to 1911, when landowner William Baring Bingham offered the National Hunt Challenge Cup – which, in its heyday, was the most important race in the British National Hunt calendar after the Grand National – a permanent home at Prestbury Park. The race became part of the two-day National Hunt Meeting, which, under the auspices of Clerk of the Course Frederick Cathcart, was extended to three days in 1923. Cathcart was instrumental in the development of what became known as the Cheltenham Festival, but until 2005, when a fourth day was added to the programme, the meeting remained a three-day event.
Cathcart was responsible for the inaugural running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, as a steeplechase, in 1924 and the Champion Hurdle three years later. The other two ‘championship’ races were much later additions to the Cheltenham Festival programme; the Stayers’ Hurdle was inaugurated, in its current guise, as the Spa Hurdle, in 1946, while the Queen Mother Champion Chase was established, as the National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase, in 1959.