The Cheltenham Festival is much more than the highlight of the National Hunt racing calendar. It has become one of Britain’s iconic sporting events – justifiably linked with Wimbledon, Royal Ascot and the F.A. Cup Final. The quality of the horse racing at the festival and its own special atmosphere help to make the four days horse racing at this Gloucestershire track an essential part of the British sporting year.
Horse Racing has been established in Cheltenham for almost 200 years but the current 500 acre site, at Prestbury Park, has been in use since 1831. The initial Cheltenham Festival was held in 1902, but it didn’t adopt its current four day format until as recently as 2005.
Each day of the Festival has its own racing highlight – Tuesday the Champion Hurdle, Wednesday the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Thursday the World Stayers Hurdle and Friday, the culmination of the event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. On each day of the meeting, however, there are five other races of outstanding quality, illustrating why the Festival has come to dominate the entire jumping season. Some of the most famous horses ever have made their reputations at Cheltenham; Arkle, Mill House, Desert Orchid, Best Mate, Moscow Flyer and, as recently as the 2009 Gold Cup, Kauto Star. Unforgettable names who took part in unforgettable races.
The continued success and development of the Cheltenham Festival has seen a growth in attendance so that upwards of 200,000 spectators will attend over the course of the four days and the number of horses attracted from overseas has also increased – notably from France and Germany. The introduction of Ladies’ Day on the Festival Thursday has also widened the appeal of the meeting and brought an added touch of glamour.
It is from Ireland, though, that many of the famous horses, trainers and jockeys have stemmed – and, of course, many of the spectators as well. Very often coinciding with the celebration of St Patrick’s Day, the Cheltenham Festival is seen as something of a pilgrimage for many Irish racing followers and the whole course and its surrounds develops very much an Irish air about the place – they reckon that more than 200,000 pints of Guinness will be poured – slowly – over the four days.
One of the lovely things about Cheltenham is the opening of the gates at 10.30 in the morning so that you can spend a long time wandering the course, the trade stands – there were 66 in 2009 -, the concourses and listen to live music and interviews broadcast throughout the site.
The Cheltenham Festival is, undoubtedly, a very special occasion and will live long in people’s memories. It is certain that everyone who was lucky enough to be there will have their own recollections of the famous Irish one, two, three on St Patrick’s Day in the 2006 Gold Cup. The ‘Cheltenham Roar’ which greets the horses as they turn into the home straight, was at its loudest that particular day.
Tickets are available in advance for each of the four days and can be booked online through the official Cheltenham Festival website. The Guinness Grandstand allows you to have a terrific view as the horses take the final fence and the Head-On Stand has a great view straight down the course but there are a variety of ticket options and prices. It should be noted that there are no concessions for school age children, although pre-school infants and babies are admitted free of charge.
The Prestbury Park venue is a few minutes north of Cheltenham, very close to the M5 motorway and is well-signposted from all directions, for road users. There is plenty of car parking available, which is also offered at a reduced price if booked in advance. If you wish to travel by train there are regular bus links from Cheltenham Spa Station, although there is also a Special Steam Train service directly to Cheltenham Racecourse Station, should you really want to arrive in style.
Additionally, Ryanair organise a variety of special flights to coincide with the Festival, mainly bringing visitors over from Ireland.