Racing in Cheltenham dates back nearly 200 years. Some of the earliest meetings were actually held up on Cleeve Hill Common.
Races on Cleeve Hill soared in popularity between 1819 and 1829, with crowds of up to 50,000 attending an annual two-day July meeting. During this period, the races became the central feature of a carnival, in town and on the hill. The elite were attracted to extravagant parties staged in fashionable Cheltenham Spa, whilst on the hill, sideshows and drinking/gambling booths catered for the masses.
The races were too much of a good thing and began to attract some unwelcome characters. The Anglican Rector of Cheltenham at the time – Reverend Francis Close – was ultra-evangelistic preaching about the evils of horse racing and gambling. Before the 1830 race meeting there was an arson attack by the Reverend’s followers on the racecourse, and the facilities on Cleeve Hill were destroyed. Racing subsequently moved to the safer environs of Prestbury Park where it has remained to the current day.
Some of the greatest jockeys, trainers, owners, and horses to have graced the hallowed turf of Cheltenham Racecourse have originated from Ireland. Legendary Irish names such as Jonjo O'Neill, Dawn Run, Arkle, and Istabraq have sealed their place in Cheltenham Festival folklore with their glorious achievements at the magnificent course.
The Festival would certainly not be the same without the Irish punters who revel in taking on the bookmakers. Probably the most famous Irish gambler to be found at the Festival is owner JP McManus, known in racing circles as the "Sundance Kid", who for more than 20 years has bet - and won - huge sums. Interestingly, JP was a guest at Cotswold Grange Hotel a few years ago whilst attending the December meeting.
An incredible amount - approaching £600m - is staked on the outcome of the 27 races of the Cheltenham Festival. £1million changes hands on every race in the betting ring at the racecourse, with over 250 bookmakers in attendance for each day of The Festival.
There are up to 650 helicopter landings at the course during the meeting, making it the busiest temporary airfield anywhere in the country. Attendances are now approaching nearly 250,000 over the four days of the Festival.
The Cheltenham Festival is truly a sporting spectacle.