Tomorrow, the Cheltenham Festival gets underway in Gloucestershire with thousands of spectators expected at the Prestbury Park racecourse for the start of Britain’s most prestigious race meet after the Grand National. Over the next four days, something like £600m will be staked on 27 races in what constitutes one of sport’s biggest betting bonanzas.
Officially titled the National Hunt Meeting, the festival has been held at Prestbury Park since 1911 and in that time the essence of proceedings has remained unchanged. Whereas many sports have seen considerable changes to their rules and format in the past century, jump racing has retained its primitive excitement.
Whilst there have undoubtedly been improvements made in horse training methods, jump racing is essentially little different to the 18th century Irish two-horse contests from which the sport descends. It perhaps helps to explain why the popularity of the sport has barely fluctuated since its inception.
At the heart of the racing action is prize money and gambling. In 1911, the National Hunt Steeplechase (forerunner to Cheltenham’s preeminent event, the Gold Cup) was run for total prize money of £832. The purse for the 2014 Gold Cup was £550,000. £832 is approximately £50,000 in today’s money so, whilst the prize fund has grown in real terms, the event has never been an insignificant one.
Betting, too, remains a central tenet of the festival. Legal or illegal, alcohol-fuelled or sober, gambling goes hand-in-hand with horse racing with an ease perhaps only matched by boxing. For many people, the sole purpose of the sport is its potential as a moneymaker. Unlike with team sports, one rarely supports a horse unless they have a stake in it.
Indeed, it is hard to match the tension at the start of a race, the trepidation as your horse reaches the next jump, the exhilaration of the final furlong, the unbounded joy of crossing the finishing line first.
Another unforgettable feature of Cheltenham is the Irish. Nearly 10,000 make the trip across from the old country each year to train, race, bet and consume. It is often said that the local pubs sell more pints of Guinness in the week of the festival than in the rest of the year combined. As much as £200m is said to be pumped into the local economy by visitors and daytrippers alike.
However great the economic expansion of the festival has been over the past few decades, much remains the same. You can be sure that at 1:30 tomorrow afternoon, the famed ‘Cheltenham Roar’ will be as powerful as ever.