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The Cheltenham Festival is a meeting in the National Hunt racing calendar in the United Kingdom, with race prize money second only to the Grand National. It is an event where many of the best British- and Irish-trained horses race to an extent 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 usually coincides with Saint Patrick's Day, and is particularly popular with Irish visitors.
Large amounts of money are gambled during Cheltenham Festival week, with hundreds of millions of pounds being bet 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 official title of the Cheltenham Festival is the National Hunt Meeting. This originated in 1860, when the National Hunt Chase was first held at Market Harborough and titled the Grand National Hunt, featuring the one race alongside other steeplechases. After taking place at a number of locations, including Cheltenham in 1861, the race returned to Cheltenham in 1904 and 1905. It was staged over a new course established at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham in 1902, although racing had taken place there previously. The National Hunt Meeting was held at Warwick from 1906 to 1910, but returned to Prestbury Park in 1911 and has remained there to this day. The earliest traceable reference to a "Festival" is in the Warwick Advertiser of 1907.
The centrepiece Cheltenham Gold Cup, established in 1924, was the original Championship race staged at the Festival, 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 to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain. The meeting had initially been postponed to April, but when a case of the disease 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. The races scheduled for that day were instead run on the third and final days 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 the Friday. To ensure each days would still have six races, five new races were 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 Gold Cup.
The festival also includes one of the two biggest Hunter Chases of the season, the Foxhunters', 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.
The 2010 Cheltenham Festival had the first ever running of the Ladies Charity Flat Race in aid of Cancer Research UK. The race was contested over 1 mile 5 furlongs, and all 12 amateur jockeys were female. The race was won in a photo-finish in front of a packed Cheltenham grandstand by Dublin-based Orna Madden riding Prince Picasso, finishing just ahead of fellow Irish rider Katie Doyle riding Devil To Pay, with Helen Needham riding on Mr. Wall Street in third.
230,000 racegoers and £250 million is expected to be wagered at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival.
For several years there have been concerns about the number of equine injuries and fatalities. In 2006, 11 horses died and in response the racecourse decreased the number of runners in certain races and re-sited one of the more difficult fences.
On the opening day of the 2012 festival, three horses had to be euthanised after suffering bone fractures or breaks, including two during the Cross-Country Chase, becoming the second and third equine fatalities in that race since 2000. There were two further equine fatalities during the festival, and some critics claimed races should not have gone ahead due to the firmness of the ground following exceptionally dry weather. The RSPCA suggested that guidelines be reviewed, while the British Horseracing Authority stated that "with over 90,000 runners a year [in British horse racing], some accidents and sadly some injuries are inevitable."
The number and type of races at the Cheltenham Festival has changed dramatically over the years of its existence. In particular, it has grown from a two-day meeting to a four-day meeting. In 2014, there were 27 races as follows:
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:
- 2014 Ruby Walsh (3)
- 2013 Ruby Walsh (4)
- 2012 Barry Geraghty (5)
- 2011 Ruby Walsh (5)
- 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)
- 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)
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- Faulkner, Katherine (16 March 2012). "RSPCA fury at carnage of Cheltenham horses as five die in bloodiest opening to festival for six years". Daily Mail (London).