Racing at Cheltenham: the genesis

PUBLISHED: 10:46 21 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:12 20 February 2013

Racing at Cheltenham: the genesis

Racing at Cheltenham: the genesis

From religious fanaticism to Steeplechase at Prestbury, Leon Ridley looks at the convoluted history of horseracing in Cheltenham

Racing at Cheltenham: the genesis



From religious fanaticism to Steeplechase at Prestbury, Leon Ridley looks at the convoluted history of horseracing in Cheltenham




It is believed the first organised horse races in Britain took place in Yorkshire around 200AD and were instigated by Roman soldiers, although the first race actually recorded happened during the reign of Henry II at Smithfield, London, during a horse fair in 1174. The sport continued to flourish in Britain, with the breeding of thoroughbreds established from the 17th century onwards, and the first Newmarket Gold Cup was held in 1634. Despite a temporary ban on all racing in 1654 by Oliver Cromwell, by the middle of the 18th century the Jockey Club and Royal Ascot had been established.


Racing actually came quite late to Cheltenham, with the first organised meeting in 1815 on Nottingham Hill. Shortly after, in 1818, racing began on Cleeve Hill. Over the following ten years, popularity grew with the Cleeve Hill meetings attracting crowds of around 30,000 for the annual Gold Cup.


In 1829, much in the spirit of Oliver Cromwell, the evangelical preacher Francis Close (after whom Francis Close Hall and Dean Close School are named) began denouncing the Cleeve Hill meetings. Close believed himself to be on a personal crusade; he had been deeply unsettled by the classical architectural style he found on his arrival in Cheltenham, which he viewed as being pagan and most un-Christian. The Reverend Close was also opposed to tobacco, alcohol and the theatre.


In 1830 the followers of Francis Close managed to disrupt the Cleeve Hill meeting by throwing bottles and stones at the horses and jockeys, and before the 1931 meeting could be held the Grandstand had been burnt down. It is believed by some that this arson attack was instigated by Close.


As a consequence to this fanatical and violent opposition, racing in Cheltenham was moved to Prestbury Park for the 1831 meeting. Racing continued at Prestbury Park until 1835 when it returned to Cleeve Hill, where a new three-storey stand had been built.


Racing on Cleeve Hill was not, however, as popular as it had been hoped. In 1840 the meetings were named County of Gloucester Races on Cleeve Hill Course, but the decline, mainly due to the economic recession of the day, was already well established. In 1842, racing ceased on Cleeve Hill, until a brief resurrection in 1851 that lasted for four years. In 1855 racing on Cleeve Hill ceased, this time permanently.


Until this time all the racing in Cheltenham had been on the flat, and despite the falling popularity of flat racing there was a growing interest in Steeplechase. In nearby Andoversford Steeplechase racing began in 1834, and for a while it was also held at Prestbury Park from 1847 until 1853, when the land was sold.


1n 1881 the land was sold to Mr WA Baring Bingham who eventually instigated Steeplechase racing at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham in 1898. The first Cheltenham Festival was held in 1902 the rest, as they say, is history.

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