Cheltenham Festival: a 200-year-old racing spectacular
It’s set to be the coldest start to a Cheltenham Festival on record, but spectators will nevertheless flock in their thousands to Prestbury Park to enjoy the biggest event in the racing calendar.
Boasting nail-biting races, fine dining and a hub of fashionistas, Cheltenham Festival is a world-famous sporting extravaganza.
Its history dates back nearly 200 years to 1815, when Cheltenham’s first organised flat race meeting took place on Nottingham Hill. The first races were held on Cleeve Hill in August 1818.
Racing became increasingly popular over the next 10 years, with 30,000-strong crowds heading to the racecourse for its annual two day July meeting.
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But not everyone was in support of the races – for some they were seen as risqué and un-Christian. In 1829 Cheltenham's Parish Priest Reverend Francis Close preached the evils of horse racing and organised demonstrations. The following year the grandstand was burnt down.
Consequently the racecourse was moved the following year to Prestbury Park, where it remains to this day. Steeplechasing became established in nearby Andoversford from 1834, and moved to the present course in 1898.
The festival’s success saw it expanded from two days to three in 1923.
For decades to follow the National Hunt Steeplechase course ran behind the back of the stands, but in 1960, in order to cope with growing crowds, the original Tattersalls Grandstand was opened.
It heralded the start of an evolutionary period for the racecourse. By the end, it had had established itself as one of the top horse racing facilities in Europe.
The period of change reached new heights in 1979 with the completion of the main Grandstand. Opened by the Queen Mother, it was twice extended in the 1980s.
The top two levels were dedicated to Private Hospitality, and in 1982 the Parade Ring, Weighing Room and Hurdlers Hall were built behind the stands with terraced viewing for 4,000.
The new stables complex was opened in 1990, and three years later the Hall of Fame Entrance.
The Cross Country Course, boasting hedges, banks and other natural obstacles, was introduced in 1995.
Next came tiered viewing and the stunning Panoramic Restaurant. Boasting prime views across the racecourse, the fine dining spot opened in 1997 after the original Tattersalls Grandstand was torn down.
But in 2001, amid the raging foot and mouth crisis, the festival had to be cancelled. A confirmed outbreak just five miles from Prestbury Park placed the track within an exclusion zone, and 150,000 ticket-holders were refunded.
But it wasn’t long until organisers were back on top. In 2003-2004 came perhaps the most exciting investment in the racecourse - the Best Mate Enclosure.
The £3 million venture saw the creation of a new grandstand, providing an unrivalled racing viewpoint and offering festival-goers a variety of food choices, extensive betting facilities and bars.
Next came a new conference and events centre, The Centaur - the biggest venue of its kind between Birmingham and Bournemouth.
And in 2005, in a move which reflected the festival’s booming success, the event was successfully extended to four days.
More than 55,000 spectators are expected to attend the first day of the 2013 meeting today.