As Tracy Spiers discovers, there are myriad legends surrounding the famous turf at Prestbury Park

Great British Life: Best Mate riden by Jim Culloty on their way to their third consecutive Cheltenham Gold cup victoryBest Mate riden by Jim Culloty on their way to their third consecutive Cheltenham Gold cup victory (Image: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency)

Seven hundred people cheered as the winning horse crossed the line at Prestbury Park for the very first time. This was 185 years ago and the horse who won that race, known as the Gloucestershire Stakes, was called Confederacy. His name kicked off Cheltenham’s history and the event itself marked the start of Prestbury’s journey to earn its prestigious status as the Mecca of Jump racing.

Yet it wasn’t at Prestbury, but on a nearby grassy crest, called Nottingham Hill, now flattened by Iron Age earthworks, where the first hooves were heard and where Cheltenham’s first race-meeting took place in 1815.

Three years later a more formal event took place on nearby Cleeve Hill and in 1819, three days of racing ended with an inaugural running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup - a three-mile Flat race, won by Mr Bodenham’s Spectre. It wasn’t until 1831 that Prestbury Park became the permanent home.

Of course it is the stories of those involved - the horses, the trainers, the owners and the jockeys who make Cheltenham what it is. The tales of courage, determination, winning against the odds, and the unexpected occurrences all add to the magic of an event which now attracts audiences of 70,000 on Gold Cup Day.

When Best Mate, three times Cheltenham Gold Cup winner died of a heart attack in 2003, he made the front page of nearly every national newspaper in the country - testimony of the public support for the four-legged characters of Cheltenham. And there has been a few!

Great British Life: Arkle, ridden by P.Taaffe, taking the last jump in the Cheltenham Gold Cup at Cheltenham.Arkle, ridden by P.Taaffe, taking the last jump in the Cheltenham Gold Cup at Cheltenham. (Image: PA/EMPICS)

One story which captured the hearts of the nation involved two horses, Kauto Star and Denman (also known as The Tank), both trained by Paul Nicholls and stabled next to each other in his yard at Ditcheat. What was amazing was Kauto Star won the Gold Cup in 2007, lost it to Denman in 2008, then won it back again in 2009 - the first horse ever to have done so and was treated like a war hero in the press.

“It was an amazing time for Cheltenham and jump racing. These two captured the hearts of not just race enthusiasts but the British public too. The fact that these horses lived next to each other in their stables in rural Somerset added to that rivalry between them,” explains Sophia Dale, communications manager for Cheltenham.

Both horses have now retired. Denman now hunts and team chases; Kauto Star sadly died last summer in a paddock accident.

Other key names include Golden Miller (five times Gold Cup winner) and L’Escargot - the only two horses to have won both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National; Cottage Rake and Easter Hero, other multiple Gold Cup winners; Brown Jack, Cheltenham’s first equine hero and Wadsworth Boy, the only horse to win three runnings of the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

And of course there are names such as Desert Orchid, a flamboyant front-runner, know affectionately as Dessie, who won his most famous victory in the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He won 34 races in total.

Jockey Richard Dunwoody, in Little Book of Cheltenham (Austen, 2014) spoke fondly of Desert Orchid.

“He was this national treasure; he had such a huge following which I never experienced on any other horse sir was great, it was a big privilege to be part of that team….He was a very intelligent horse, so as horsemen you recognise that, but he appealed to the public massively. And quite rightly so. He was the most talented horse I ever rode.”

But the horse who is considered the greatest hero with hooves is Arkle, who is now

the measuring stick of success for current and future horses. It makes sense then when you hear the whispers “is this horse the next Arkle?” So what is so special about this epic steeplechase? Named after a mountain in Sutherland, Arkle won 27 of his 35 races which includes three Gold Cups, a King George VI Chase, two Hennessy Gold Cups and an Irish Grand National. He was the horse who kept on winning - a headline delight for sports journalists. I am no racing expert, but I do enjoy the unusual details such as the fact that Arkle’s daily feed included six eggs and two bottles of Guinness: an appropriate tipple considering race goers get through almost 260,000 pints of it during the four day Festival!

There was much celebration in March 2015 for winning trainers Mark and Sara Bradstock when eight-year-old Coneygree became the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 41 years. Sara’s dad, the late Lord Oaksey, bred Coneygree.

“The stories in racing are always very heart warming such as the small trainer winning the Gold Cup. There is always a story that comes out of The Festival. There are always so many other things that happen over the week that bring the event to life and for a communications manager it can be a bit of a roller coaster!” explains Sophia Dale.

But it is not just the horses who make the headlines and have earned their place in Cheltenham’s history. Two of Flat racing’s great legends, Lester Piggott and Sir Henry Cecil have won races at The Festival; Nicky Henderson still holds the record as having trained the most winners at the Festival; Willie Mullins became the trainer with the most winners in one week last year when he had eight winners over four days; whilst the most amazing single feat is held by trainer Michael Dickinson who in the 1983 Gold Cup, saddled the first five home.

And another interesting fact that deserves a mention, is that there has been three sets of brothers and sisters who have ridden Cheltenham winners: Marcus and Gee Armytage; Nina, Philip and Paul Carberry and Ruby and Katie Walsh.

Which leads nicely on to the women’s place in Cheltenham’s history including Katie and her sister-in-law Nina Carberry. Women were not allowed to hold training licences until 1966 and female jockeys were banned from riding until 1972. Key female names included trainer Delma Harty, who won the County Hurdle at the festival in 1970; Mercy Rimell who trained Gaye Brief and won the Champion Hurdle in 1983; Jenny Pitman who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 19084 with Burrough Hill Lad. Other names include Monica Dickinson, Garrison Savannah, Henrietta Knight, Jessica Harrington, Caroline Beasley and Venetia Williams.

The Festival pulls at the heart strings. The emotion of the occasion is immense both for winner and loser. And of course there are the tales that are not so happy. Horses are obviously large animals and jumping fences at 35 MPH is not without risk to both horse and riders. But for those involved in Jump racing, it is THE place to be - the place to change history and earn a place amongst the big names. I leave the final words to Communications Manager Sophia Dale, who will be the one telling many a story to national and international journalists in the coming weeks.

“You can’t help but feel the heart of the history is here. Standing by the course and thinking about all the amazing horses that have ridden here even on a quiet summer day when The Festival seems a very far off event,” she says.

“There is a huge history to Cheltenham as there is across British horse racing and it so exciting because at every Festival there is more history to be made.”

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