The oldest race run at the Cheltenham Festival is Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase or, more correctly, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase, as the race has been known since 2005.
The late Major John ‘Johnny’ Henderson, father of leading National Hunt trainer Nicky Henderson, was an influential figure in the horseracing world. In 1963, he brought together a group of investors to buy Cheltenham racecourse for £240,000, thereby preventing it from being taken over by property developers. The following year, he was instrumental in the formation of Racecourse Holdings Trust (now Jockey Club Racecourses). Henderson Snr. died in December, 2003, aged 83 and, two years later, his name was added to the race title in recognition of his contribution to safeguarding Cheltenham.
Nowadays, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase is run over a distance of about 2 miles, or 1 mile, 7 fulongs and 199 yards to be precise, on the New Course at Cheltenham on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival. However, the inaugural Grand Annual Chase was run on April 4, 1834 – five years before the first ‘official’ running of the Grand National –
in the vicinity of Andoversford, east of Cheltenham. Thus, the Grand Annual Chase is not only the oldest race run at the Cheltenham Festival, but also the oldest surviving race in the British National Hunt calendar.
The Grand Annual Chase was run over various courses and distances – in 1835, for example, a distance ‘upwards of four miles’ – in the locality until 1843 and, after a four-year hiatus, was transferred to Noverton, adjoining Prestbury Park. Between 1861 and 1866, the race was run at Southam, Warwickshire and, thereafter, not run at all until the early twentieth century; it finally returned, permanently, to Cheltenham in 1913.