Ten things you might not know about Cheltenham

the new stand at Cheltenham 23/10/15

Cheltenham: was a hospital during the Great War

  PICTURE: John Grossick (racingpost.com/photos)  

 By Alastair Down 10:57AM 11 NOV 2016 

Alastair Down with ten nuggets of information on the home of jump racing

1 In this week of remembrance Cheltenham racegoers thronging the Arkle and the Tommy Atkins bars might reflect that 100 years ago the racecourse was a busy Great War hospital. What is now the Arkle bar was a ward for the wounded and in the Tommy Atkins a small panel of brickwork is preserved with the carved initials of soldiers from the Western Front. The holes in the brick remain from where the Tommies chalked their snooker cues in the brick dust as chalk was unavailable.  

2 Josh Gifford was champion jockey four times in the 1960s but never rode in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

3 Fred Archer’s father William, who rode Little Charley to win the 1858 Grand National, was landlord of the King’s Arms in Prestbury and apprenticed his son to Mathew Dawson at Heath House, Newmarket just after his 11th birthday in 1866. A prodigy across country around Cheltenham from an early age, Archer was hopelessly homesick and forever frightened of the dark. Dawson and his wife were childless and took to the frail youngster. Dawson saw Archer’s innate genius immediately and in 1868 told The Sporting Times: “There is a little fellow I shall be able to make a jockey of. He wants hands at present but is the pluckiest lad I’ve ever had.”

4 Francis Close was the fiery, evangelical Anglican rector of Cheltenham from 1826-1856 and among his sermons were The Evil Consequences of Attending the Racecourse and Teetotalism: The Christian Duty – the latter is still required reading at Jim Bolger’s yard. Close loathed the theatre, betting, booze and smoking. He was behind the prosecution of the free thinker George Holyoake, coiner of the phrases jingoism and secularism, who was the last person convicted of blasphemy after a public lecture at the Cheltenham Institute of Mechanics in 1842.

5 St Grellan is believed to be the oldest horse to compete at the Cheltenham Festival when finishing unplaced in the 1928 National Hunt Chase. But veteran pride of place goes to 15-year-old Mac Vidi, who was third in the 1980 Gold Cup, eventually being promoted to second on the disqualification of the winner Tied Cottage. Trained on Dartmoor by the then Pam Neal, 66-1 shot  Mac Vidi is the oldest horse to be placed in a Gold Cup.

6 In the 1850s and 60s a regular at William Archer’s King’s Arms was Black Tom Olliver, who rode three Grand National winners and went on to train both horses and prize fighters – notably Tom Sayers, whose 42-round, two-hours-ten-minute fight with American heavyweight John Heenan in 1860 was effectively the first world championship bout. When an owner wrote to Black Tom asking if his horse would stay, Olliver replied: “Sir, your horse can stay but he takes a long time about it.”

7 In 1976 Cheltenham lost three autumn fixtures as the course was unfit for racing due to drought. Worry not. Since August 23 Simon Claisse has watered the course with over four million gallons of water which goes from the brook crossing the course into the reservoir and eventually back into the brook again. An eco-friendly circle.

8 Lieutenant Kim Muir, commemorated by the amateurs’ chase at the festival, was an all-round sportsman and exceptional falconer who finished eighth in the 1938 Grand National. Born at Postlip Hall hard by Cleeve Hill, he was a World War II tank commander. Retreating to the Channel ports in 1940 his tank was hit and Muir pulled his sergeant John Locker from the burning wreck, staying with him through the night as he died. Checking his bearings to return to his unit next morning, he was shot through the head by a sniper. He was 23 and lies in Hodeng Au Bosc cemetery in Normandy.

9 Adam Lindsay Gordon, one of Australia’s greatest poets, was educated at Cheltenham College and frequently rode Cheltenham as an amateur. He is commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey and wrote the famous lines “Kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own.”

10 According to Cheltenham guru Edward Gillespie the racecourse estimates that 10,000 visitors from Ireland attend the festival. Yet the Irish travel companies can account for nearer 15,000 leaving home. Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the missing 5,000.

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