Cheltenham Racecourse Guide

The Cheltenham Festival is the highlight of the year for many racing fans, however, Cheltenham has much more to offer than those glorious four days in March.

Here, as well as covering the famous festival we will look at the various races that take place at Cheltenham, the course itself, and of course its history.

If you love National Hunt racing, you love Cheltenham, and this page covers it in depth.

The Cheltenham Festival

Coral Cup Cheltenham
Credit: Will Palmer (cropped) Flickr

There is so much to talk about when it comes to Cheltenham but the reason the course and indeed the town is so much a part of racing folklore is the eponymous Festival. So we’ll start there.

The Festival’s roots go way back to 1860, although in truth it is more of a 20th century phenomenon. It is claimed the word “Festival” was first used in reference to the Cheltenham meeting in 1907. However, it was from 1911 that the National Hunt Chase permanently moved to the course and this, for us at least, is the start of the Cheltenham Festival.

The Festival has changed so much over the years but a full history of this amazing racing feast is to be saved for another day. Let’s move on to the practicalities.

What is the Cheltenham Festival?

If you’re reading this you probably already know all about the Festival, but if you don’t, here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know.

  • The Cheltenham Festival runs for four days in early to mid-March
  • It is a National Hunt meeting and takes place at Cheltenham’s Prestbury Park course
  • The Festival runs from Tuesday to Friday
  • Each day has a feature race, with Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup the biggest and best of the lot
  • There are 28 races with a huge number of Grade 1 contests, including all four Championship (feature) races
  • These contests span hurdles, chases, bumpers, handicaps, cross country tests and more, with distances ranging from two miles to a marathon four miles
  • There is more than £4.5m in prize money up for grabs, including over £600,000 just for the Gold Cup
  • The famous “Cheltenham roar” greets the start of the first race
  • Cheltenham is largely contested by horses from the UK and Ireland, though French horses also feature regularly
  • Top trainers in recent history include Gordon Elliot, Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls
  • Top jockeys include the now-retired AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Barry Geragthy and Davy Russell
  • Around 250,000 racing fans attend the four-day Festival each year
  • It is estimated that around £500m is wagered on the Cheltenham Festival every March

If you want more info about betting on the Cheltenham Festival, check out our Cheltenham Festival day by day guide. This brings you everything you need to know about the action, with a run down of each day in detail.

Visiting Cheltenham Races

Cheltenham Train Station

If you want to visit Cheltenham, be it for the Gold Cup or any of its other great race days, here’s what you need to know:

  • Location – the course is just outside the Gloucestershire town of Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, north east of Gloucester in south west England
  • Address – Cheltenham Racecourse, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 4SH
  • Contact details – or 01242 513014 or via Twitter on @CheltenhamRaces
  • Tickets – prices vary a great deal, see the website, or call 0344 579 3003 for more info
  • Dress code – in general there is no dress code and non-offensive fancy dress is permitted. In hospitality areas different restrictions apply.
  • Transport – getting to Cheltenham is easy by various modes of transport. During the Festival extra transport and shuttles are available but car, train, bus and air are all options. Parking is plentiful and free, bar during the Festival and two other popular days.
  • Accommodation – there are plenty of options near the course, in the town of Cheltenham and further afield. Note that for the Festival, these book up a LONG way in advance.
  • Hospitality – there are a huge range of corporate and hospitality options, especially for the Festival, and these are perfect for those wanting a luxurious day out.
  • Food and drink – wherever you are in the course you won’t be too far from a food and beverage outlet with lots of choice. During the Festival a pint of Guinness is never far away.

Course History

Cheltenham Racecourse History
From The Jockey Club

The history of the Festival is rich and fascinating and the history of the course itself is, naturally, even longer. We’ll try and keep things relatively brief here. If you want further information there are some excellent books about Cheltenham and the Festival.

Principally because of the Cheltenham Festival, the course is considered the home of jumps racing in the UK. It is home to the Steeplechasing Hall of Fame and is owned by the Jockey Club, along with a number of other key tracks such as Aintree, Epsom, Newmarket, Kempton and Sandown.

There are two courses at Cheltenham, the New Course and the Old Course. Highly original in their titles. Both of these are located at the same site and both are solely used for National Hunt horse racing.

The Early Days

The racecourse is located at, and sometimes called, Prestbury Park, and this venue was founded in 1831. Racing had taken place in the Cheltenham area as early as 1815 but moved to the current site following religious protests about the evils of horse racing.

The Jockey Club, then called the Racecourse Holdings Trust, was created in 1964 and helped secure the long-term future of Cheltenham Racecourse. Following a period of little investment during and after the war, Cheltenham needed improving and over time the Jockey Club carried out the required works.

Into the Modern Era of Racing

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s new stands were added and old ones improved, with the main Grandstand being finished in 1979. Cheltenham’s popularity has meant this has been extended several times since and, reflecting the modern world and finances, masses of extra corporate areas have been added.

This process continued throughout the 1990s and then between 2002 and 2003 a huge £20m was invested in the course. This created a new enclosure and grandstand but the majority of the expenditure was on a new events and conference centre.

The Centaur is a 4000-person facility that boosts the economic sustainability of Cheltenham and is the biggest conference centre within a wide area stretching north to Birmingham and south to Bournemouth.

Cheltenham’s Future

The Cheltenham Festival is a huge earner for both the local area and of course the racecourse. It was extended from two days to three days and then, in 2005, to four days. The course is thriving and is almost always being improved or extended.

Between 2013 and 2015 a huge £45m was spent to make the facilities bigger and better than ever. The redevelopment came in on time and on budget. Who would have bet on that? There were 14 separate aspects to the developments, with a range of facilities for all customers being added or polished.

Cheltenham is now undoubtedly one of the very best racecourses in the world. More than 700,000 people visit each and every year and from the cheapest tickets all the way up to the Royal Box, they are treated to a superb experience. Probably just a little bit more superb in the Royal Box though we reckon.

Biggest Meetings and Races at Cheltenham

Cheltenham Races Crowd
Credit: Chris Guy Flickr

We have already touched on some of Cheltenham’s biggest and best races and there can be little argument that it is the Gold Cup that gets most people excited. However, there is far more to the racecourse than one or two big meetings.

Cheltenham hosts just 16 days of brilliant NH racing each year, with four of those (25%) coming during the Festival. Almost all of the other days are spreads over other top class mini-festivals too, the biggest of which is the November Meeting.

The November Meeting

This three day affair takes place, yes, you guessed, in November. Until recently it was known as the Cheltenham Open meeting but this was changed so people wouldn’t confuse a 160 year old golf tournament with a 20 year old racing meeting.

Anyway, The November meeting runs from Friday to Sunday in mid-November and is easily Cheltenham’s second biggest fixture, boasting top class racing aplenty. It has grown in many ways out of the success of the Festival itself, with the organisers grouping together a range of decent races to create a secondary meeting. Or money-spinner depending on your point of view.

The November Meeting offers up some great pointers for the following year’s Cheltenham Festival. It’s also a real sign that the NH season is well and truly underway. Some view it as the unofficial start to the season-proper – we just view it as another great reason to visit Cheltenham.

The International

Later on in the year, on Friday and Saturday in mid-December, comes The International, another of Cheltenham’s key meetings. Like the November Meeting, this is more of a fun occasion, with the Christmas Party following on. The racing isn’t quite of the standard of the November Meeting but even so, there are some cracking betting heats to savour.

Cheltenham Trials Day

As the name suggests, this is a single day but one that is well worth looking out for as things build towards the Festival. Trials Day takes place at the end of January and is, like the meetings above, cheaper and easier to visit than the Festival itself.

This is a great chance to look at horses who may become serious contenders in a month or so’s time. This is the course’s last day of action prior to the March showdown, giving horses one last chance to claim a course victory.

Biggest Races at Cheltenham

Here are some of the biggest races throughout the season at Cheltenham. We could almost list every race on the Festival card but we’ve tried to be restrained:

  • Cheltenham Gold Cup, The Festival – Grade 1 Chase, 3m 2f 110y
  • Champion Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 2m 110y
  • Queen Mother Champion Chase, The Festival – Grade 1 Chase, 2m
  • Stayers’ Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 3m
  • Ryanair Chase, The Festival – Grade 1 Chase, 2m 5f
  • Arkle Challenge Trophy, The Festival – Grade 1 Chase, 2m
  • Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 2m 110y
  • Mares’ Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 2m 4f
  • Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 2m 5f
  • RSA Chase, The Festival – Grade 1 Chase, 3m 100y
  • Champion Bumper, The Festival – Grade 1 NH Flat, 2m 100y
  • JLT Novices’ Chase, The Festival – Grade 1 Chase, 2m 4f
  • Triumph Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 2m 1f
  • Spa Novices’ Hurdle, The Festival – Grade 1 Hurdle, 3m
  • Gold Cup, November Meeting – Grade 3 Chase, 2m 4f 110y
  • Arkle Trophy Trial, November Meeting – Grade 2 Chase, 2m
  • Greatwood Hurdle, November Meeting – Grade 3 Hurdle, 2m 100y
  • International Hurdle, The International – Grade 2 Hurdle, 2m 1f
  • Cotswolds Chase, Trials Day – Grade 2 Chase, 3m 1f 110y
  • Cleeve Hurdle, Trials Day – Grade 2 Hurdle, 3m
  • Classic Novices’ Hurdle, Trials Day – Grade 2 Hurdle, 2m 4f 100y

The Track

Cheltenham Hurdles
Carine06 from UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As said, there are two discrete tracks at Cheltenham, the Old Course and the New Course. Cheltenham uses both courses relatively evenly, with the Festival’s biggest races pretty much split between them. The first two days of action take place on the Old Course, with Thursday and Friday on the New.

Trials Day uses the New Course, as does the International, the New Year’s Day action and one or two other days. The November meeting takes place on the Old Course, along with what Cheltenham call The Showcase, which takes place at the end of October.

As previously said, both are National Hunt courses and both are run left handed. The tracks run alongside one another and both are stiff, undulating tests, with very tricky fences that can certainly catch inexperienced horses out. The hurdles on the New Course are arguably a little easier.

The Old Course is a shade quicker but on both it is important to have a horse and jockey who can see and seize an opportunity quickly. The New Course is very slightly longer but both are around the mile and a half mark.

Both circuits finish with a steep incline around the sweeping final bend. This shouldn’t prove too trying unless a horse is tying up and more often than not is the time that the best in the field strike for home.

Whilst the obstacles are a major test and the undulations and inclines make things even trickier, Cheltenham remains a great racecourse and tends to suit galloping sorts.