Historically recorded as a market town as long ago as mid-1220 and later fashionable 18-19th century spa retreat (visited by such luminaries as Jane Austen and the Duke of Wellington), Cheltenham established its first organised race meeting at Nottingham Hill, during the reign of George III in 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo. This scarcely-documented flat gathering was moved to nearby Cleeve Hill three years later and staged as a one-day event. By 1819 public interest hastened the construction of a grandstand and a ‘proper course’ when the meeting was extended to a three-day affair. That same year a fledgling Cheltenham Gold Cup, a flat race for three-year-olds was run over three miles on the final day and won by Spectre.
Ensuing years saw an increase in public appetite for racing at Cleeve Hill (with summer meetings attracting thirty to fifty thousand people to the area) strongly countered by local religious opposition. As the descending upper classes busied themselves with sumptuous parties in the town, on the hill itself the less privileged of society assembled drinking and gambling dens, veritable beacons for brawlers, carousers, thieves and prostitutes. Such lewd and leery antics did not go unnoticed by the Anglican Rector of Cheltenham, the firebrand evangelist Reverend Francis Close, or his anti-gambling flock. At the 1829 meeting, objects were pelted at the runners and riders and in 1830 part of the course was set on fire, resulting in the meeting’s removal in 1831 from the hill to its overlook at Prestbury Park.
Changing times, economic hardship and dwindling glamour saw flat racing’s popularity at Cheltenham wane throughout the 1840s, despite Prestbury Park having built a 700-capacity grandstand in its grounds the decade before. Similarly, although flat racing had returned to Cleeve Hill (with its new grandstand) in 1835 and where the turf was said to be better, from 1843-1850 no racing occurred whatsoever. Another dalliance there in 1851 lasted only five years until Cleeve Hill’s permanent abandonment.
In 1847, amidst a tide of apathy for the flat, Prestbury Park spied an opportunity to harness a growing public interest in steeplechasing by laying on the oldest race in the jumping calendar, the Grand Annual, an event won that year by Stanmore, ridden by William Holman. The Grand Annual debuted in 1834 at neighbouring Andoversford and had then moved around courses. After 1847 it continued at Prestbury Park until the land was sold in 1853 for £19,600 to an owner who forbade horseracing of any kind to be staged on his property.
Horseracing fortunes at Prestbury Park were revived in 1881 when the land was sold on to a keen enthusiast of the sport, a Mr W. A. Baring Bingham. For a time its expanse was used as his stud farm before a reasonably successful race meeting was organised in 1898 and just four years later in April, the Park debuted its own National Hunt Festival.
Capitalising further, the prestigious National Hunt Chase, part of the National Hunt Meeting (first run at Market Harborough in 1860), made Prestbury Park its permanent home by 1911 after a couple of spins there in 1904-5 and notably granted lasting status to the March meeting during which it was staged.
The Festival itself owes much of its evolution and influence to the endeavours of Frederick Cathcart, a senior partner at Messrs Pratt & Co., a company entrusted to manage Prestbury Park along with other racecourses. Pivotal in the advancement of Cheltenham as a centre of excellence for National Hunt racing, Cathcart became clerk of the course at Prestbury Park and founding chairman of the Steeplechase Company (Cheltenham) Ltd between 1908 and 1934. In 1911 the National Hunt Committee negotiated an agreement with Cathcart’s company to ensure that the town staged the National Hunt Meeting every year therein, in preference to the event’s annual pilgrimage.
The inaugural 1911 Cheltenham Festival took place against a backdrop of a newly-built stand and Cathcart-hosted ‘press and officials private viewing’ in the same year as a severely hot British summer and complementary drought. Ironically, the well-attended two-day meeting was plagued by bad weather, rendering the going very heavy. On day one, the 33/1-shot, Sir Halbert landed the National Hunt Steeplechase by a neck and on the following day sleet and hail failed to stop Autocar, at odds of 100/6, winning the three-and-a-quarter mile Gold Cup predecessor. Prize money for both events amounted to over £800 each. Despite being such a wash-out on its inception, and guided confidently onwards by Cathcart, by 1923 the meeting had become a three-day affair. The following year came the Cheltenham Gold Cup, an extended three mile chase run at level weights and won by Red Splash at 5/1, with Pathe News on hand to cover the occasion. The Champion Hurdle emerged in 1927, won by the 11/10 favourite, Blaris. Respective prize money for each race was £685 and £365.
By the time of his death in 1934, the festival had increased in both importance and popularity, granting Frederick Cathcart his dream of turning Cheltenham into a world-class centre for jump racing. One obituary of the day read: “Much of the success of the ‘chasing at Cheltenham was due to Mr Cathcart’s energy and enterprise.” Fittingly, the Cathcart Challenge Cup, staged between 1938 and 2004 (and subsequently replaced by the Ryanair Chase) was named in his honour.
By the 1930s Prestbury Park entered its richest period of history with a new racing star in the shape of five-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Golden Miller, whose exploits set the jumping standard for many other Cheltenham elites to come, among them Cottage Rake, Arkle, Mill House, Desert Orchid, Istabraq, Best Mate and Kauto Star. From humble beginnings on a nearby hill, mixed fortunes and human drama, and the keen vision and perseverance of one man, today’s Cheltenham can boast not only a scintillating present but a lively and fascinating past.