Cheltenham 2002: Dream-chasers return to Cotswolds

After last year's foot-and-mouth cancellation the Festival roar is back.
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The Independent Online

The Cheltenham management are not about to start making wholesale changes to a Festival that has proved one of the biggest success stories in sport. But one drastic decision has been taken unanimously at board level. "This year we actually plan to do it," said Cheltenham's managing director, Edward Gillespie. "That will be enough for most people."

It is an emblem of the course's restored confidence that they can now go lightly about events which were as farcical as they were disastrous to the Cotswolds economy 12 months ago.

Ultimately, the shining celebration of the reason for National Hunt racing was derailed by 23 sheep grazing on the course, which forced the cancellation of the Festival because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The sense of the absurd was heightened by the lost 48 hours it took Cheltenham to inform the outside world of the Government directive which had called off the meeting. There can only be a broad speculation about the financial toll. During the Festival 10,000 people, half of them from Ireland, stay in and around the town and, by calculation from the county's tourism authority, they contribute £44m to the county's economy.

Gillespie has talked of the abuse directors had received from some sectors of the local community. Indeed, he has admitted to indecision. In the aftermath, there was the breaking of bread with the Gloucestershire farmers' union and hoteliers' association, as well as a bridge-building visit to Ireland. Even now, though, full forgiveness has yet to be achieved. "At the moment we feel we've got everything back into at least neutral," Gillespie says. "I would like to think we have stabilised."

The market for accommodation has nevertheless stood up well. "The Irish have told me they are bringing last year's money as well as this year's, which is very encouraging all round," Gillespie says. And bookings have largely followed the pattern of previous years, with Thursday and the Gold Cup sold out first, the middle card the second most popular and Tuesday offering the most available tickets.

There are, however, signs that the corporate side is less robust.

"There might be a slight Cheltenham factor in that having lost it last year some people might have got out of the habit," Gillespie says.

It is the course's determination to ensure the Festival of 2002 runs as if the cycle was never disturbed. "But we are genuinely aware that if we are not very vigilant there are staff and operational issues which may be a little rusty," Gillespie says. "It is two years and there has been a turnover on all sorts of staff which means there will be people there who have not actually experienced a Festival.

"There is a crowd here which must be looked after. We are tapping into – perhaps the Grand National and a Bank Holiday at Cartmel apart – people who would otherwise never get near horseracing. Whereas many go for the joy of seeing the best horses compete this is also a perfectly good reason for spending as long as possible in the Cotswolds. The gathering of the clan is so much part of the rhythm of the year for many people. There is a real sense of anticipation for that now within the town and county."

It will all come true, though, only when a distinctive noise wakes the many for whom Cheltenham recently became a nightmare. We will only really believe at just after 2.00pm on Tuesday, when a huge swell of noise will herald the departure of the runners in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle. "Even ahead of the roar, will be the arrival of the first horses into the stables the weekend prior," Gillespie says. "That will be pretty magic for everybody here. But then there will be the roar itself, which seems to be the real arrival point.

"Mick Fitzgerald says that, as a jockey, the only time he ever hears the crowd is when he is going past the line at the end of a race with a big winning margin or at the start of the first for the Festival, even though the grandstands are several furlongs away.

"We just want the horses to take it over now. That has to be the point where we all say, 'Here we go again'."