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'RACE WITH THE DEVIL' THAT ALMOST FELL AT THE FIRST; All roads lead to Cheltenham for racing fans this week. But, had a raging Reverend had his way, the Cheltenham Festival as we know it, wouldn't exist. MAUREEN MESSENT explains why.


MANY of the Cheltenham faithful will, no doubt, be oering up prayers as they slap their hard-earned cash on their four-legged fancies this week.

But such supplications, however sincere, are likely to turn the bones of a longdead Anglican clergyman in his grave. For in the early 1800s the Rector of Cheltenham, the Rev Francis Close, railed against the event, preaching hell re sermons against all involved.

And his ock pelted runners and riders with stones.

It happened around 1818, after the legendary Miss Tidmarsh, a young mare from Gloucestershire became the rst recorded winner at what was to grow, over 200 years, to the Cheltenham we know today.

ere'd been scrappy at racing before this but it was her debut on Cleeve Hill, overlooking today's course, that got the gentry excited.

A modest grandstand followed, and the meeting stretched to two days.

Publicans shipped in beer stalls for farm labourers hell-bent on good days out (but kept well away from the tos), and armsful of women - often as fast as Miss Tidmarsh - turned up with an eye to business.

So did cardsharps, pick-pockets, and men from the shadier side of the street.

is so-called debauchery was all too much for the Rector, who preached angry sermons against racing, gambling, drink, or letting down of hair.

e following year, the grandstand went up in smoke.

If it was the rector, he never owned up, his ock pelting the runners and riders with those stones.

Several changes of address later, revived by a growing interest in steeplechasing (racing across open country steeple to steeple), the nearby village of Prestbury was becoming the haunt of horsey men who set up training stables, riding through Prestbury at dawn to reach the gallops.

Among them was Tom Oliver (known as Black Tom for his swarthiness and black hair), who rode three Grand National winners, and guided his friend, Top Pickerell, to have 17 Grand National rides.

George Stevens was another local, notching up ve Grand Nationals, his two on e Colonel in 1869 and 1870 so popular that Prestbury's nest lit bon res up on Cleeve Hill.

William Archer, stud manager to the Tsar of Russia on a salary of PS100 a year when he was 17, settled in the village, won the Grand National and the heart of Emma Hayward, whose father was landlord of e King's Arms, still known to serve a good pint.

eir sons, Fred, William, and George, all became famous in racing circles.

e last triumphant bonre to be lit was in 1954, when local trainer John Roberts' Four Ten won the 1954 Gold Cup. Prestbury Park was sold to Mr W.A. Baring Bingham in 1881, but didn't start racing as a xture until holding its rst Hunt Festival in 1902.

e 1911 forerunner of today's Gold Cup (and worth PS832) was won by Autocar at 100-6 in heavy rain. Massive changes have come over the years - despite the Festival being cancelled in 1943 and 1944 when the course became a temporary army training camp. en foot-andmouth disease caused a delay.

Racing slumped after the war but then came one of those reversals of fortune in the shape of Irish trainer, Vincent O'Brien.

He was a shy man who landed three Champion Hurdles with Hatton's Grace and three Gold Cups with Cottage Rake - these last three a shocker because the gelding had won the Irish Cesareswitch, a at race, before even looking at a jump.

ese wins left so deep an impression on both sides of the Irish Sea that the horse and his jockey, Aubrey Brabazon, had their own song: "Aubrey's up, the money's down, e frightened bookies quake, Come on, my lads, let's raise a cheer, Begod! It's Cottage Rake."

ese days, it's a far di|erent Cheltenham for its racing calendar, redeveloped by a PS45 million investment to improve facilities.

But it is still the course where every owner, trainer and jockey yearns for a mention in despatches.

Rev Francis Close's flock pelted runners and riders with stones


Davy Russell, |right, celebrates on Lord Windermere after winning the Gold Cup last year

Rev Francis Close, preached against |the formative Cheltenham festival
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Mar 8, 2015
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