It plays host to arguably the biggest and best horse racing meeting on UK soil, but how much do you know about Cheltenham Racecourse.
What’s the difference between the Old and the New Course? How high are the fences? How steep really is the famous hill climb down the final straight?
The devil in the detail could be the difference between placing winning bets on the Cheltenham Festival and otherwise, and even if you don’t have a flutter on the four-day meeting knowing the facts below may well add to your entertainment of the spectacle.
So here’s all the key facts and figures about Prestbury Park, aka Cheltenham Racecourse.
When Did Cheltenham First Host Horse Racing?
It’s thought that horse racing first took place in Cheltenham way back in 1815, with the Duke of Gloucester putting up prize money to help boost the early days of the sport.
It wasn’t until 1902 that Cheltenham Racecourse was officially launched at the current Prestbury Park site, with the first stands built 12 years later.
Now able to host huge crowds, the idea to put on a mega-meeting of racing took hold in the 1920s. Cheltenham Festival was born….
When Was the First Cheltenham Festival Held?
Although a consolidated Cheltenham Festival wasn’t held until the 1930s, some of its major races were being contested before that.
The first ever Cheltenham Gold Cup took place in 1924, with Red Splash – still one of only a trio of five-year-olds to take the spoils – winning for owner Humphrey Wyndham and trainer Frederick Withingham. Connections pocketed a cool £685 for their efforts, plus the shiny trophy that is (after a hiatus) still handed out to this day.
The National Hunt Chase was still considered the more prestigious race in those days and second only to the Grand National in terms of prominence.
The introduction of top-flight hurdles races also took place in the 1920s, with the Champion Hurdle first contested in 1927 and won by the 11/10 favourite Blaris.
What is the Capacity at Cheltenham Racecourse?
Given the popularity of the Cheltenham Festival, it’s no surprise that tickets tend to sell out rather quickly – even though as many as 280,000 punters and racegoers are allowed on site throughout the week.
The capacity per day at Cheltenham used to be in the region of 71,000, however now racecourse officials have decided to cap the daily capacity at 68,500 per day in a bid to improve the spectating experience.
That’s still a monumental amount of people, of course, although it pales in comparison to the world’s largest racecourse: Tokyo’s monster track, which hosts many of Japan’s key races, has a capacity of 223,000.
What’s the Difference Between the Old and New Courses?
The two tracks at Cheltenham Racecourse run alongside one another, with the Old Course hosting the first two days of the Festival and the New Course the last two.
The Old Course is considered slightly ‘sharper’ than the New, which results in races generally being run quicker. That’s why it hosts the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase, where speed over two-miles is the key.
The New Course is generally considered more of a test of stamina, and it’s not rare to see those that have run their race too early fading in the final furlongs. There’s a long old run-in to the finishing post.
Both courses are considered to have ‘stiff’, i.e. tough, obstacles to jump, and both are routed so that the final straight coincides with the uphill finish – many have floundered here and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
How Steep is the Cheltenham Hill?
Although it makes for a fantastic narrative, the hill that marks the end of races on both courses at Cheltenham perhaps isn’t as steep as you might think.
Yes, some horses have floundered up the ascent, but they may well have ran out of gas anyway. The hill rises up around ten metres (33ft), which sounds a lot but actually isn’t that uncommon amongst the tougher National Hunt tracks.
For context, tracks like Navan (17m) and Leopardstown (15m) have considerably tougher run-ins, which perhaps explains why Irish horses have a history of doing so well at the Cheltenham Festival!
How High are the Fences/Hurdles at Cheltenham?
As you may know, there are two distinct types of races runs at the Cheltenham Festival: hurdles and chases.
The hurdles races take place over smaller obstacles that are less ‘stiff’, which means that a horse can even smash their way through a hurdle with an ill-timed jump and still stay upright.
These hurdles are a minimum of 3ft 6in high, while fences – over which the steeplechases are run – are taller at around 4ft 6in high. Made from spruce or birch, these are stiffer than hurdles and require a well-timed jump to ensure horse and rider get over them effectively.