The Cheltenham Festival is the most prestigious meeting in the National Hunt racing calendar in the United Kingdom, and has race prize money second only to the Grand National. It is an event where many of the best British and Irish trained horses race against each other, the extent of which is relatively rare during the rest of the season.
The festival takes place annually in March at Cheltenham Racecourse in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The meeting is often very popular with Irish visitors, mostly because of that nation's affinity with horse racing, but also because it usually coincides with Saint Patrick's Day, a national holiday in celebration of the patron saint of Ireland.
Huge amounts of money are bet during festival week, with hundreds of millions of pounds being gambled over the four days. Cheltenham is often noted for its atmosphere, most notably the "Cheltenham roar", which refers to the enormous amount of noise that the crowd generates as the starter raises the tape for the first race of the festival.
The first Cheltenham Festival was held in 1902 at Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, which still remains the same venue for the festival to this day. It was in 1904 that the first National Hunt Steeplechase was introduced to the festival, a race which would become known as the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1924, when it was won by a horse called Red Splash. The Gold Cup was the first of the festivals four Championship races, with the Champion Hurdle being introduced in 1927, the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1959, and finally the Stayers Hurdle, which was first run in 1972.
In 2001 the Festival was cancelled due an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain. The meeting had initially been postponed to April, but when a case of foot and mouth was confirmed locally, putting the racecourse within an exclusion zone, all racing had to be called off. In 2008 the second day of the festival was cancelled due to heavy storms which hit Britain during the week. The races scheduled for that day were instead run on the Thursday and Friday of the Festival.
Until 2005, the Festival had traditionally been held over the course of three days, but this changed with the introduction of a fourth day, meaning there would be one championship race on each day, climaxing with the Gold Cup on Friday. To ensure each days would still have six races, five additional races were also introduced. Two further races have since been added bringing the total to 26 races overall, with Grade One events including the Champion Bumper, Triumph Hurdle, Ryanair Chase, Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle, Arkle Challenge Trophy, RSA Chase, Champion Hurdle, World Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and the feature race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The Festival also includes one of the two biggest Hunter Chases of the season, the Foxhunter's, which is run on the Friday over the same course as the Gold Cup, and is sometimes referred to as the amateurs' Gold Cup.
Unlike Royal Ascot and many other top Flat racing events in Britain and Ireland, the Cheltenham Festival does not have a history of attracting many international contenders though French-trained horses have done well - Baracouda being perhaps the most well-known, having landed the World Hurdle twice. In 2010 Australian trainer Anthony Cosgriff, a former vet to Mark Johnston, plans to bring his staying novice hurdler Gorge, to run in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle .
The 2010 Cheltenham Festival had the first ever running of the Ladies Charity Flat Race on Thursday 18 March at 17:15 in aid of Cancer Research UK. The race was contested over 1m 5F and all twelve amateur jockeys were female. The race was won on a photo finish in front of a packed Cheltenham grandstand by Ms Orna Madden from Dublin, Ireland riding Prince Picasso finishing just ahead of fellow Irish rider Ms Katie Doyle riding Devil To Pay with Ms Helen Needham riding on Mr Wall Street in third.
For several years there have been concerns about the high number of injuries and fatalities to horses. This was brought to a head in 2006 when 11 horses died. In response the racecourse decreased the number of runners in certain races and resited one of the more difficult fences. However, some animal rights groups do not accept that this is sufficient.
The following table contains the race schedule for the 2010 festival, with each days feature race in bold.
The top jockey for the festival is the jockey who wins the most races over the four days. The winners since 1980 with wins in brackets are:
- 2010 Ruby Walsh (3)
- 2009 Ruby Walsh (7)
- 2008 Ruby Walsh (3)
- 2007 Robert Thornton (4)
- 2006 Ruby Walsh (3)
- 2005 Graham Lee (3)
- 2004 Ruby Walsh (3)
- 2003 Barry Geraghty (5)
- 2002 Richard Johnson (2)
- 2001 Cancelled - foot & mouth
- 2000 Mick Fitzgerald (4)
- 1999 Mick Fitzgerald (4)
- 1998 Tony McCoy (5)
- 1997 Tony McCoy (3)
- 1996 Richard Dunwoody (2)
- 1995 Norman Williamson (4)
- 1994 Charlie Swan (3)
- 1993 Charlie Swan (4)
- 1992 Jamie Osborne (5)
- 1991 Peter Scudamore (2)
- 1990 Richard Dunwoody (2)
- 1989 Tom Morgan (2)
- 1988 Simon Sherwood (2)
- 1987 Peter Scudamore (2)
- 1986 Peter Scudamore (2)
- 1985 Steve Smith Eccles (3)
- 1984 Jonjo O'Neill (2)
- 1983 Graham Bradley (2)
- 1982 Jonjo O'Neill (1)
- 1981 John Francome (3)
- 1980 Jim Wilson (3)
- ↑ "Going is good for Cheltenham". BBC Sport. 17 March 1998. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sport/66009.stm. Retrieved 10 March 2009.
- ↑ "Cheltenham festival gets underway this afternoon". The Belfast Telegraph. 10 March 2009. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/breaking-news/sport/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival-gets-underway-this-afternoon-14219806.html. Retrieved 10 March 2009.
- ↑ "Cheltenham Festival called off". BBC Sport. 1 April 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/1254326.stm. Retrieved 10 March 2009.
- ↑ "Cheltenham Festival". BBC Sport. 12 March 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/horse_racing/7291303.stm. Retrieved 10 March 2009.
- ↑ Totesport to sponsor Gorge raid on Cheltenham Festival - Racing Post
- BBC Gloucestershire's Virtual Cheltenham: An insider's view of the world famous National Hunt course