Festival encore is chronic relief

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THERE were many things at Prestbury Park on Friday that you would expect to find at Cheltenham during Festival Week: mud, Guinness, burgers and shamrocks, for instance. But the red noses on sale for Comic Relief Day were unprecedented, as was another commodity previously unknown at the Festival: space.

The one-off Friday fixture attracted 16,000 smiling spectators, delighted to be able to move from grandstand to bookie and back in less than 25 minutes. That was not the case earlier in the week, when 42,000 people had attended the Champion Hurdle, 38,000 journeyed to the course on Wednesday and 57,000 had squeezed in to watch Master Oats win the Gold Cup on Thursday. These are unprecedented figures - records were broken on every day of the Festival meeting. And they all had to brave the Cheltenham combination of hail, rain and biting wind to give the bookmakers money.

"Well obviously we market the Festival," Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's dapper chief executive, told us. "But I think what we are seeing is attendance at ordinary meetings remaining static while crowds at the bigger events get larger and larger. It's like the rugby internationals: everybody wants to be at the Big One."

The Festival is undoubtedly a Big One, and behind the traditional bars and betting booths lies a slick modern venue quite comparable with other sporting bastions such as Wimbledon and Twickenham. The Hall of Fame is a symptom: a light, elegantly carpeted museum-cum-reception which also houses the Festival offices. It's a far cry from Fakenham.

Gillespie knows that Festival crowds want more than just great racing. He spends around £70,000 on "extras" - flowers, marching bands, stilt- walkers, giant viewing screens. "People have more confidence in coming here if they know that their time will be filled," he explained. "That money is probably the best money we spend. It shows that we are interested in enhancing the atmosphere of the place.

When they tire of the entertainments (and in some cases of the racing), Festival-goers can always shop. Milliners and glovers, shirt-makers and sculptors all reported increased turnover this year. "Business has gone up with the attendance figures," Tony Conner, the Eton hatter, told us. "I can't tell you how many hats I've sold - hundreds and hundreds." The volume of headgear soaring through the air in Friday's gales bore him out.

The Cheltenham formula - lovely things to watch, to do and to buy - obviously works. But success and popularity cause new problems, of which the most pressing is just that: it is difficult to move at Cheltenham during Festival week. On several occasions we thought we were in a queue for one thing only to find that we were in a crush for another. It was easy to end up trying to put on a Placepot at the Burger Bar, or purchase a gin and tonic from Sam Harris, Established 1926, "Accounts Opened".

Not that it really mattered: all things could be achieved with a little pushing and shoving and a well thought out schedule. And, most important, Festival crowds are convivial - there was never a hint that discomfort could turn ugly.

But Gillespie acknowledges one problem that could put people off returning. Parking. There were epic queues to get into the meetings, and awesome delays in getting out - one racing correspondent suggested his readers bring along tapes of favourite operas to while away the time.

"It's difficult," Gillespie conceded. "We can race the track, but we can't park the cars. On Tuesday we were only saved from disaster by the local farmers, who charge a few pounds to park on their land." So what's he going to do about it? "Improve it," he said. "Improve it."

The extra day after the Festival seemed a lovely idea to us, but it is supposed to be a one-off. Cheltenham will lose a spring meeting to drainage work, and the extra day was a way of making up lost revenue. Red Nose Day was a happy coincidence. "It's a bit of fun," Gillespie said. "I think it's a lovely way of of coming down from the stratosphere of the Festival." He said he'd like to be "persuaded" to make the bonus day a permanent fixture. But he didn't look as if he would need much nudging.

The young Red Nose volunteers, marshalled by the avuncular figure of Sir Clement Freud, went about their business with enthusiasm, and in no time their supplies of plastic proboscae were exhausted. But that was no surprise: red noses and Cheltenham have been synonymous for years.

WYCK HILL HOUSE, a handsome hotel near Stow-on-the-Wold, is the unofficial HQ of the Irish heavy- hitters at the Festival: men such as JP McManus, John Mulhearn, and Charles Haughey. So we were surprised to overhear, during a late-night ceilidh at the hotel on Wednesday night, such unIrish ditties as "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner", "Jerusalem", and "Land of Hope and Glory". Those peace talks must be coming along a treat.

PHONE boxes in metropolitan areas have long been used by ladies of easy virtue to advertise their services with little cards. There is a slight difference at Cheltenham: one punter entered a box and found a card advertising the Pipeline. This is not a venue for extreme deviance, however, only the trainer Martin Pipe's tipping service.