Kentucky Derby vs Cheltenham Festival: How Do They Compare?

As spring approaches, excitement is building for horse racing fans around the world with huge events scheduled in the sport across the world. Fans in the United States are eagerly anticipating the Kentucky Derby, an annual race that takes place in Louisville as part of the festival by the same name. It is held in May at Churchill Downs in front of over 150,000 spectators, who typically enjoy traditional food and beverages like mint jalep and burgoo. As well as the fans in the stadium, the Kentucky Derby attracts millions of fans globally, with many of them hoping to win money from the race. It is believed that up to $200 million is wagered on the Derby every year. Meanwhile racegoers in the UK are looking forward to Cheltenham Festival, a four-day racing event held in April every year at Cheltenham Racecourse in England. It is a huge event that captures the attention of fans in the UK and abroad. 


The older of the two events, Cheltenham Festival, was first held in 1860, although it didn’t take that name until it was moved to the town in 1911, having previously been held at different racecourses around the country. The festival has always been a horse racing event, although the races included have changed throughout the years. The oldest of the festival’s current races, the Stayers’ Hurdle has been going since 1912, while The Gold Cup, the feature race of the event, was introduced in 1924. Since then, additional races have been added to the bill, including the Champion Hurdle in 1927 and the Champion Chase in 1959. For most of its history Cheltenham Festival was a three-day event, but a fourth day was added in 2005 with a number of new races added.

While Cheltenham’s feature race was introduced once the festival was already established, the success of the Kentucky Derby race is what inspired the festival to be created. The race was inaugurated in 1875 after Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark returned from visits to England and France, where he was inspired by the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. The first edition of the festival was held in 1935 with parades, parties, races and other sporting events taking place in the two weeks leading up to the big event. 

Feature races

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is widely believed to be the UK’s most important horse race. It is a steeplechase with 22 fences to be jumped over three miles and two and a half furlongs, or 5.294 kilometers. It is famous for its large prize pot that regularly exceeds £400,000, last year’s winner took home a whopping £263,766 and it is believed that this year’s prize pot will be over £625,00. 

Also known as “The Run for the Roses”, due to the winner being presented with the flowers, the Kentucky Derby is a flat race with a distance of ten furlongs or two kilometers. It is a test of raw speed that lasts around two minutes, which has contributed to its other nickname, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”. Since being launched in 1875, it has taken place every year, it is one of the few professional sports events that wasn’t cancelled during the Great Depression or either World War. 


The Cheltenham Festival is an event which attracts everyone from horse racing purists to part time fans who only take an interest in the biggest events in the sport. There are a total of 28 races run throughout the four days with 7 races held per day. Each day has a feature race, which usually takes place right in the middle of proceedings, rather than at the end. The races each differ in terms of length, jumps and overall difficulty, with strict requirements on age and weight for the horses that enter. As well as the racing action, spectators can enjoy food, drink and spectacular views provided by the racecourses many bars and restaurants.

Contrastingly, the Kentucky Derby Festival is both a longer and more varied affair with something for everyone. As well as the feature horse race, the Derby also regularly includes America’s largest annual fireworks display, a hot air balloon race a marathon and a parade. Rather than a celebration of horse racing, its more of a celebration of Kentucky culture, suitable for visitors and locals of all ages. Fashion shows, concerts and wine tastings have also been held during the festival, as well as private parties that residents often hold to celebrate the event.

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