Prestbury Park is a beautifully crafted sporting arena, carved within 350 acres of the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire and the courses are unlike those at any other racecourse.
Undulating and stamina-sapping, the sting in the tail regularly comes at the end of each contest in the form of the supremely challenging “Cheltenham Hill” – an ever-upward climbing passage runners must scale from the last obstacle to the winning line. Every weapon in a competitor’s arsenal is needed for victory at Cheltenham Festival.
The Cheltenham race days Festival uses all three of Cheltenham’s courses. The Old Course stages racing on the first two days of the meeting, with the New Course taking over for days 3 and 4. Since the Festival changed to a 4-day meeting in 2005, the amount of ground available to race on has been increased.
The fences on the New Course have also recently been widened by 5 meters, which gives the racecourse the flexibility to use the outside portion of them during the early part of the season, saving around 12 meters of entirely fresh ground (and fence) on the inside of the New Course specifically for the Festival.
The unique cross country course is used for the Cross Country Handicap Chase.
The New Course has two fences in a long home straight than the Old Course, but only one fence on the downhill run. This obviously can still be tricky, for similar reasons to the two downhill fences on the Old Course, but a key obstacle here used to be four out. Taken at the top of the hill as the horses start to turn left, it often used to catch out even the most seasoned chasers given that the course fell away to the left immediately after the fence. However, the fence has now been moved back 15 meters meaning it is jumped on a slightly flatter part of the track.
As well as testing a horse’s jumping to the limit, the longer run-in on the New Course, up the famous Cheltenham hill, will ruthlessly expose any chinks in a horse’s stamina and the wallets of betting tipsters.
The New Course also has a rather unusual layout to its hurdles track given that there are only two flights in the last seven furlongs. Two out, on the downhill run, is about half-a-mile from home leaving a near three furlongs run to the final flight in the home straight. Also, in the Triumph Hurdle and County Hurdles, contestants cross eight flights of hurdles, but the first is only a matter of strides from the start. It can, therefore, catch horses cold across any Cheltenham racecourse, before they have got into any sort of rhythm.
Cheltenham races on this course really start in earnest at the top of the hill (after the final ditch, four out) and the third last, in particular, can catch out horses who find themselves gathering momentum and traveling at a slightly quicker pace than they feel comfortable with, such is the case with Cheltenham enclosures.
The Old Course now has two fences in the home straight. After the 2010 Festival, the penultimate fence was moved 239 yards from the bottom of the hill, round the bend on to the finish straight, as previously the fence came at the bottom of a short downhill gradient and the momentum which horses carried into the fence produced a characteristic fall where horses took off too early and the jockey got fired into the turf on the landing side.
Cross Country Course
The cross country course takes racing at Cheltenham back to its roots with a selection of natural and man-made obstacles incorporating banks, ditches, hedges, water, and timber rails.
Designed by Mike Etherington-Smith, who was responsible for the 3-Day Event cross country course at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the configuration of the Cheltenham racecourse deliberately weaves around the center of Prestbury Park, with turns to the left and right leading competitors on a variety of routes and directions, while racegoers watch with anticipation hoping for their Cheltenham betting tips to come true.
One of the main differences between the Cross Country Course and the steeplechase courses at Cheltenham is the materials used to build the fences. Chase fences are constructed from ‘dead’ materials whereas the fences on the Cross Country Course are living, growing trees, shrubs and bushes, which are regularly trimmed for racing.
Following a controversial running of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase in November 2008, where jockey Davy Russell got one over his colleagues by taking a “legal” shortcut that didn’t follow the normal racing line, the racecourse announced changes to the Cross Country Course.
The problem was caused by the fact that the bushes which mark the natural racing line are not recognized as official course markers by the BHA. The Cheltenham race days executive and the BHA Inspectorate, therefore, agreed that an additional “C” marker and running rail be positioned on the Course at the point where Davy Russell cut the corner, so as to ensure that there could be no confusion among racegoers and television viewers as to whether or not a horse has taken the correct route. This means that a repeat of that maneuver would now result in disqualification of the horse concerned.
“C” – which you can clue upon in our Cheltenham festival glossary – markers are the officially designated method of directing jockeys around steeplechase Cheltenham racecourses and must always be kept on a jockey’s inside around a turn.
Cheltenham Festival – Fun Facts
- During the Festival meeting, 200 tonnes of divot mix will be used in treading / repairing the course, together with 100 sacks of grass seed.
- There are 10 miles of running rail on the racecourse with 165 hurdles and 24 fences – measuring a quarter-mile long if they were all joined together.
- After the Festival, there are around 4 million hoofprints on the racecourse!
- The racecourse employs over 60 permanent staff, which rises to approximately 1,000 for a race meeting and over 5,000 at the Festival.
- Throughout the year, some 700,000 people visit the racecourse.
Discover more about Cheltenham in our Festival FAQ and facts guide.