Cheltenham prepares to party after farm virus

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The Independent Online

When the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival fell foul of foot-and-mouth disease last year, some residents compared the cancellation to the last minute calling off of a family wedding. Not only did the Cotswolds town miss out on an estimated £20m from racegoers, but also three days of partying which have few rivals on the sporting calendar.

When the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival fell foul of foot-and-mouth disease last year, some residents compared the cancellation to the last minute calling off of a family wedding. Not only did the Cotswolds town miss out on an estimated £20m from racegoers, but also three days of partying which have few rivals on the sporting calendar.

In the run-up to this year's meeting, Cheltenham racecourse's chief executive, Edward Gillespie, is surveying final preparations with the apprehensive demeanour of a best man. Potential problems have included a foot-and-mouth scare two weeks ago and anti-doping raids on stables. Corporate bookings are slightly down after 11 September.

However, by Tuesday, thousands of racegoers will, barring any new calamity, be arriving at the Prestbury Park racecourse. Last year the course was empty for the first time since 1944.

Steeplechasing's premier event was in doubt from the moment foot-and-mouth was detected on a Northumberland farm in February last year. On 8 March, Mr Gillespie announced the postponement of the event because of fears that a small herd of sheep grazing on the course could worsen the outbreak. Pointing to a small area of grass in front of the Guinness spectators' stand where the sheep had been grazing, Mr Gillespie said: "It became the most talked about patch of grass in the entire racing community."

The final decision to cancel was taken in April. The Cheltenham Festival attracts about 200,000 racegoers but the big spenders are the 20,000 to whom the three-day meeting is a celebration of steeplechasing tradition and who stretch the Tuesday to Thursday event into a week-long party.

One in four of the big spenders is from southern Ireland – the cradle of British jump-racing – and hoteliers and publicans say they have the tills ringing like Christmas and New Year – doubled. Billy Burke, a publican, said: "In the same way as every kid wants to play for Manchester United, everyone involved in racing in Ireland wants to get to Cheltenham. You'd look silly in a feather hat here. There are no airs and graces – it's all about the craic."

In 2000, about £4m was spent on accommodation in Gloucestershire hotels and bed-and-breakfast lodgings. A further £11m was spent in Cheltenham's 87 pubs, 13 nightclubs and shops.

Hedley Thompson, the council official in charge of tourism, said: "In the short term [last year's cancellation] was a catastrophe, but it focused people's attention on other racing events. Many people also realised that the local economy was too reliant on the racing."

Plans for a 1,900-seat conference centre at the racecourse are awaiting approval from the council and tourism officials miss no opportunity to trumpet the town's literature, jazz and science festivals.

Last September, Mr Gillespie and other managers from the racecourse began a "charm offensive" by travelling to Dublin. In addition to mediating between racegoers and hotels over lost deposits for rooms, they had to "sell" the festival like never before.

While the financial blow to the racecourse was cushioned by an £8m insurance payout, smaller businesses were left to grapple with the complexities of a scheme to defer payment of VAT and rates. Most have grown weary of recriminations.

Now the most frequently mooted questions in the taxi rank outside Cheltenham Town Hall are whether the festival's "patron saint", the Queen Mother, will attend; how many irksome punters will try to pay in euros; and whether Cheltenham will bounce back this year to be the best ever.

The effects of 2001 have been felt in the betting shops, most of which will open from 8am – one and a half hours early. In 2000, turf accountants took £20m in on-course bets – the equivalent of £1m for each race. This year they have got off to a slow start because the Cheltenham form of many runners and riders has been untested for two years and poor weather has forced cancellations and undermined the form guide.

But there is a quiet confidence that the errant sheep of 2001 will simply become part of Cheltenham's lore in the same way that Aintree remembers the year when a false start forced the abandonment of the Grand National.

Tickets for this year's festival, costing £15-£60, sold out this week and those hoping to find hotel accommodation within a 30-mile radius of the town may be unlucky.

At the racecourse, Mr Gillespie was admiring the gentle slopes and neatly clipped wicker jumps. "I'm not nervous or excited yet," he said. "But when the first roar of 180,000 racegoers goes up on Tuesday it will be a huge buzz for me."



'The town has recovered fast'



Nigel Dimmer, co-owner Martin & Co County Jewellers

"This business has been the custodian of the gold cups for 40 years and I didn't believe that foot-and-mouth could stop the week ... but Cheltenham has recovered very quickly. As well as the shop in town I have an outlet at the racecourse. You have to be there because there is a captive audience of many thousands who are all in high spirits. You'll find that if a gentleman has a good week at the bookmakers he'll come here to buy a gift for his wife."

Graham Griffin, cab driver

"It was a bad loss of business to me last year. As a cab driver you are not insured for those losses. During the race week you can take fares around the clock. People stay in town drinking in the hotels with their mates and then get a cab back to Stratford or Worcester 30 miles away. This year will be back to normal. I just hope [passengers] don't try to pay me in euros – although I'll be happy to take them as a tip."

Billy Burke, owner Prince of Wales pub

"There was obviously a lot of pressure to cancel from the Irish government. If foot-and-mouth had taken hold there, it would have destroyed the economy. Last year was desperate. The dray lorry turned up on Monday morning and I had to send them on their way with a full load. I fully expect this year to be the best yet. I only wish this place was big enough to hold everyone who wants to come in."

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