10 Fun facts about Jump racing's greatest meeting
We all know the Festival is the greatest show on turf - 4 days of the best Steeplechases and Hurdle races in the world.
The Festival is rivalled only by a handful of comparable events worldwide which can draw a huge crowd, most of which stage international Flat races. Despite sporadic popularity for National Hunt events across Europe, the USA and Australasia, no fixture in the UK or Ireland comes anywhere close to the pulling power of Cheltenham.
In the USA, Jump racing is confined to Eastern seaboard states where it's not unusual to see 30,000 spectators at events at Far Hills or Maryland for the American interpretation of the Jump racing experience - parking up against the rail and hosting an enormous and very elaborate picnic from the back of a station wagon, whilst well endowed races take place on the course a few yards away - shades of the UK Point-to-Point scene, scaled up with typical American panache.
But the mother of all American racing events is Churchill Downs' Louisiana jamboree, usually a Spring affair, now deferred because of Covid to next month. Kentucky Derby Prep Races 2020 have been eagerly anticipated as the nation awaits the return of its favourite race.
Here are 10 things you may not know about Britain's favourite race meeting:
The creator of the Festival
Frederick Cathcart was Chairman and Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham from 1908-34, and responsible for creating the National Hunt Meeting at Cheltenham in 1911, the first recorded date for a 2 day Festival of racing. It was to be a further 13 years before the event's centrepiece, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, was invented.
The Cathcart was a highly competitive 2m5f handicap on the middle day of the three day Festival that was a fixture of the meeting until the advent of the fourth day, when it made way for the conditions race that is now the Ryanair Chase.
Since the late eighties, the Festival has enjoyed year on year increases in prize money to the extent that it is worth well over £1m per day, five times the average Saturday card. Small wonder it has become a must-have stopping place for chasers from all over the Western hemisphere.
Prize money across all 28 races in 2020 totalled £4,621,510. It will be interesting to see how well Cheltenham can protect this in 2021.
Even in the Thirties, over 35,000 used to cram into Cheltenham to watch the likes of Easter Hero, so large crowds are no modern phenomenon. However, at an average 67,000 per day, Cheltenham is rivalled only by the Royal Meeting at Ascot in spectator footfall.
Yet despite this, following the new development of a few years back, spectator movement around the enclosures is probably better than it has been in years.
Food & Drink
Guinness is to Cheltenham what strawberries & cream are to Wimbledon. The two are synonymous. Over 265,000 pints of Ireland's national drink are consumed over the four days. Hardly conspicuous consumption for the puritans among you; this amounts to less than a pint per person.
Guinness is washed down with some some 8,000 gallons of tea and coffee whilst away from the cheap seats, some 45,000 hospitality covers are served.
Travel & accommodation
The Festival delivers a welcome boost to the hospitality sector locally with many folk staying two or more days, although only the diehards have livers strong enough for the entire week.
134,000 travel by train to Cheltenham using Cheltenham Spa or the steam train from Toddington. This compares to an average footfall at the Network Rail station of 19,000 each week.
36,500 vehicles park at Prestbury Park every day, which makes for significant logistical problems in a wet year.
Spectators are lodged as far afield as Stratford and Oxford as hotels are over-booked. Cheltenham Borough Council works with private homeowners to open up additional B & B beds specially for the week.
Ryanair, sponsor of the eponymous Championship Chase that is a feature of day 3, adds an additional 30 flights for the week to and from Dublin to accommodate Irish travellers.
The Cheltenham Festival is like no other event for bookmakers across the UK, Ireland, and through the internet, much further afield. It is estimated that some £600m is wagered on the event each year.
It's testament to the Festival's pulling power that 7 of the 10 most bet on races in the UK calendar are Jumps races, and whilst the Grand National is still the leader, the Festival dominates the rest of the top table.
Music and after hours entertainment
The Festival has become much more than just a race meeting. There is a choice of 6 bands to listen to across different venues of the course, from the Guinness Village to the Centaur and everywhere in between.
One sponsor has even been known to import his own piano to a private box for late night partying.
In recent years, the Irish have dominated the leader board, consistently winning at least 50% of the races, and carrying off the feature events. However, it was not always so. During the eighties, before the Celtic Tiger lifted Ireland to new wealth, there were years when they took home little more than one or two prizes.
Despite recent success in the Gold Cup, the Irish trail British winners 26 to 66.
The first Irish winner of the race was in 1925 when Ballinode beat 8/13 favourite Alcazar for trainer Frank Morgan and rider Ted Leader, but the architect of the now normal Irish invasion was Vincent O'Brien.
The peerless Ruby Walsh has ridden more winners than any other jockey at the Festival, including a record of 7 in a single year. His 59 winners put him some way ahead even of AP McCoy, with a "mere" 31.
For years, Fulke Walwyn led the way among trainers, amassing 40 winners against his nearest rivals Fred Winter and Fred Rimell with 28 and 27; all this in an age of a 3 day event with 18 races.
It has taken until this year for Willie Mullins to overhaul Nicky Henderson as king of Cheltenham.
The French connection
Mandarin was the first horse with French connections to plunder the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but it wasn't until Francois Doumen started campaigning horses in the UK that any impetus was given to a continental challenge for our top honours. His victory in 1994 was hard-earned after two second placed finishes.
More recently, the Glenfarclas Cross Country has been the scene of French triumph as Easyslands took the whisky back to France for David Cottin.
All things considered however, the French have little to complain of; a substantial proportion of the winners over the 4 days are now French-bred.
The Festival truly is among the U.K. top horse racing shows. Bring it on again when our Covid days are behind us!