The Cheltenham Festival: Controversy Is Thy Middle Name

The Cheltenham Festival traces its roots back to the 19th century when the Grand National Hunt Meeting was initiated at Market Harborough, a considerable ways North and East of Cheltenham.

The festival underwent a series of name changes during its early years and migrated from location to location as well, notably spending several years at Warwick Racecourse. In the very early years of the 20th century it made its way to Cheltenham where it has (for the most part) remained ever since.

The Festival is a major event on the National Hunt racing calendar with prize money for 2017 expected to be a record £4,305,000.

The Cheltenham Festival - Melting Pot of the Well-Heeled

As the home to several Grade 1 races the Festival attracts the high and mighty of British society with old money and new mingling amongst the more than 62,000 who attend each of the festival’s 4 days.

This year’s Festival goers are expected to wager more than £250 million often with the help of Free Tips .

With the scent of all that money and prestige wafting through the air you’d think the Festival would be a low-key affair highlighting the best of genteel society.

But you’d be only partly right. While (most of) the guests are typically on their best behaviour the Festival nonetheless has developed a reputation as something of a controversy magnet.

While everyone likes to believe that the Sport of Kings is continually bathed in the golden light of propriety the fact is that the Festival has been attracting controversy almost from the start.

Those controversies have taken many forms over the years involving just about everything and everyone associated with the event: from enterprising courtesans plying their trade in the stands to radio personalities unable or unwilling to temper their verbiage to famous footballers unable to control their bladders and questionable decision making on the part of organizers.

There’s been plenty of finger-pointing, head-shaking, back-stabbing, banning and bad blood to go around but somehow, amidst all the squabbling and squawking, the Festival has continued to thrive with each year’s purse besting the preceding year’s and demand for tickets outstripping supply by increasingly absurd margins.

 An Eye on the Future

Whilst men and women of good faith can disagree about rules and codes of acceptable behaviour there is one type of controversy that transcends petty bickering and goes right to the heart of the whole enterprise.

That has to do with, what many believe, are the unsightly number of horse fatalities associated with the Cheltenham Festival. While exact numbers are the subject of another, separate controversy it’s generally agreed that several dozen horses have died during the festival since the turn of the 21st century.

An appalling number by any standard. Race-goers this year will be looking to see if changes instituted by the event’s organizers will be sufficient to finally ensure the safety of these magnificent animals and their riders. Stay tuned.

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