Cheltenham's all-time favourites: Horse racing's big festival celebrates its centenary

Robin Oakley profiles the people who've made it an odds-on winner

Nicky Henderson has handled more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone still training. This year, he could top the all-time list and he has no doubt why the Festival matters: "Every time you buy a horse you start with a dream. The owner who doesn't think of his horse as a potential Cheltenham Festival horse is rare indeed."

This is the hundredth year of Cheltenham. It was in 1911 that the course, set in the Gloucestershire countryside beneath Cleeve Hill, became the permanent home of the National Hunt Chase, a four-mile steeplechase for amateurs at that stage seen by the National Hunt Committee as the most important jumping race in the calendar and which had previously roamed around a selection of courses. Now Cheltenham's four-day Festival, which starts on Tuesday, is an event which tests the livers and wallets of its passionate spectators as much as it does the courage, stamina and skill of the horses and riders. It is acknowledged as the jumping Olympics, and the Gold Cup its 100m final. The Festival scarcely has to advertise: jockeys and trainers unsaddling in winners' enclosures elsewhere throughout the season frame most of their comments in terms of the horses' Festival potential.

To get there Cheltenham – where racing first started in the early 19th century, has had to survive the excoriations of local hellfire preacher Dean Francis Close, who perceived the sport as a magnet for every kind of sin from gambling to fornication and whose followers once burned down an early grandstand. Then , after the First World War, it provided backbone as a new generation of tough young farmers sons took over from the devil-may- care subalterns of cavalry regiments who had dominated the previously largely amateur sport.

Cheltenham's early professionalism and race programming helped to build a public following for the winter sport which had long been a poor relation of flat racing. After the Second World War it became a focus for the friendly but intense Anglo-Irish rivalry which is a key theme of modern Festivals – along with a frantic betting market – £150m a day is gambled at the Festival, which provides a tenth of the Tote's annual turnover.

The real stars of course are the horses – equine heroes like Arkle and Mill House, Kauto Star and Denman, Desert Orchid and Dawn Run, Istabraq and Sea Pigeon, Best Mate and Moscow Flyer. But many on two legs have played key roles along the way, here are four of the most prominent.

FREDERICK CATHCART

The founder

It was Frederick Cathcart's dream to make Cheltenham the home of National Hunt racing. Cathcart, who came from a business providing secretariats for racecourses, was the first chairman of the Cheltenham Steeplechase Company in 1907. He cleaned up the quality of stewarding (there had previously been cases of officials not disciplining riders and trainers who blatantly manipulated form and then using that information to back the horses the next time they ran). He oversaw the building of a new stand and laid out a new course. But with the Grand National in those days carrying a prize out of scale with any other jump race his crucial contribution was the introduction of a genuine championship race, the Gold Cup, in 1924, a year after he turned Cheltenham into a three-day event.

The Grand National had always been and still is a handicap with horses allotted weights designed to give every one a chance. The Gold Cup was to be a weight-for-age steeplechase, with horses of normal racing age carrying the same weight and running over normal fences, not the then huge Aintree obstacles. In 1927 under Cathcart's regime the Champion Hurdle was introduced as a similar contest for horses racing over the smaller obstacles. True championship racing had arrived.

DOROTHY PAGET

The eccentric owner

In the 1920s new-style horses such as Easter Hero, built for speed as much as endurance, arrived on the jumping scene but the sport needed character and personality. Enter Dorothy Paget. She had been a fine horsewoman in her youth, hunting, showing and riding in point to points, but she grew so obese that she looked twice her age. She was the owner of a vast chain-store fortune inherited from her maternal grandfather, William Whitney, and it was racing's good fortune that she diverted much of it into buying horses, having been fired with enthusiasm for the sport by her cousin Jock Whitney's success with Easter Hero.

Paget suffered from a chronic shyness and an aversion to men. When she used to visit racecourses, clad in a shapeless tweed coat and a beret, wearing no make up and with unstyled cropped hair, she would be accompanied by a posse of protective female secretaries. Contemporaries told of her locking herself in a lavatory until most racegoers had left then summoning her trainers for a debrief.

She spent huge sums buying horses, even more on backing them, often putting on as much as £10,000. Later, when she lived a reclusive life in Chalfont St Giles, floors stacked with yellowing copies of the Sporting Life, she would sleep by day and work at night, telephoning her trainers at all hours. Bookmakers would allow her to bet long after races had finished, trusting her not to have found out the results.

Her greatest horse was possibly the best we have ever seen over fences: Golden Miller won the Gold Cup five times and took a Grand National too.

VINCENT O'BRIEN

The face of Irish racing

Cheltenham simply wouldn't be Cheltenham without the Irish, cheering home their winners, celebrating in the Guinness Village and punting fearlessly. In 2010 Ireland was credited with seven winners in the 26 Festival races. Seven winners were trained across the Irish Sea by Irish trainers. But fifteen of the 26 winners were bred in Ireland and twenty races were won by Irish-born jockeys.

The man who sent over the first successful raiding parties and began the Anglo-Irish rivalry was the training maestro Vincent O'Brien who, before he turned to training Derby winners on the flat, won a trio of Gold Cups with Cottage Rake and three Champion Hurdles with Hatton's Grace.

O'Brien was not just a wonderful trainer and a successful gambler. He was an innovator. The broadcaster Sir Peter O'Sullevan says: "Vincent was always far-seeing and that was characterised by him flying his horses over in 1949. So many people said, 'Getting out of an aeroplane and bloody running at Cheltenham?' and wondered what the hell would happen to them but he flew over Castledermot, Hatton's Grace and Cottage Rake."

O'Brien, he says, changed the whole Irish approach to Cheltenham. "Before they couldn't afford to come if they had a potential Cheltenham winner. They just had to sell it. Vincent was the first one who persuaded Irish owners to hang on and have some winners themselves."

EDWARD GILLESPIE

The moderniser

Race companies aren't known for their youth policies but Cheltenham proved an exception, appointing Edward Gillespie as general manager some 30 years ago when he was only 27. Eyebrows were raised about a youngster with light-blue suits and flared trousers and the most urgent inquiry made among the doubters was: "Does he wear a hat?"

Hat or no hat, the public school vowels reassured the traditionalists and before they quite know what they have done they found they had authorised another mini-revolution: new stands, a re-sited parade ring and winners enclosure, a cross-country course and a four-day Festival. Gillespie has made reality of Frederick Cathcart's dream but Cheltenham is not only the spiritual home of the sport, it also makes more than half the profits of the Jockey Club, which owns another 13 racecourses. There may be a shrewd commercialism about Gillespie, but the romance of it all has never left the man.

Gillespie buzzes about with relentless energy. On the coldest of days he will be the one man at Cheltenham without a coat as he fizzes between grandstand, office and weighing room sorting out friction over an owner whose tickets have not arrived, demanding the fire be lit in the Hall of Fame, and discussing the going with visiting Irish trainers . "Edward write a biography?," said one colleague on hearing such a project had been mooted by a publisher. "You would never get him to stand still long enough for that, let alone sit."

Robin Oakley is The Spectator's racing columnist and a former BBC political editor. His book, 'The Cheltenham Festival: A Centenary History' is published by Aurum Press (£20) on Tuesday.

To order a copy for the special price of £15 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?