And they're off! All bets are on for Cheltenham, the fans' festival

The quiet Regency town is about it undergo its annual transformation into a place of bacchanalian revelry. Rachel Shields talks to some of the main players
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The Independent Online

The spa town of Cheltenham will this week throw off its genteel Regency air and be transformed into the home of National Hunt racing to host of one of the biggest sporting events of the year. The four-day Cheltenham Festival is second only to Wimbledon in terms of attendance, with a quarter of a million visitors expected to descend upon the town in time for the first race on Tuesday.

During the festival, punters will place an estimated £600m-worth of bets nationwide on 25 races, drink 20,000 bottles of champagne and 210,000 pints of Guinness. The fact the inhabitants of Cheltenham welcome the transformation with open arms may have something to do with the £50m it adds to the local economy every year – the course alone employs 5,000 staff. Gloucestershire hotels will be full, and residents even rent out their homes and driveways to guests who want a room close to the course.

Ascot might have the hats, Aintree may have its formidable fences, but Cheltenham is famed for its craic – in part resulting from the tens of thousands of horse-fanciers who flock over from Ireland to follow the fortunes of its favourite sons.

"The best horses in the industry will be racing, and the punters will have been following them all year, waiting to see who comes out on top in Cheltenham. This is as good as it gets in horse racing," said Jenny Prest of Ladbrokes.

Visitors pay as little as £18 a ticket to watch the action but much bigger sums will change hands once they are through the gates. The four-day festival will witness more than half a billion pounds of betting, both on the trackside, online and in bookies' shops. Much of this will be staked on Friday's Cheltenham Gold Cup race which sees defending champion Kauto Star pitted against rival Denman, unbeaten in his last eight races.

While the racing remains the focus, the sedate town becomes the centre of a bacchanalian party. The town's numerous bars and restaurants will be packed, and tales of people going missing for days are commonplace.

Although some race-goers criticise the "over-commercial" expansion of the festival – which includes an enormous tented shopping village – most insist it remains one of the most exciting events of the sporting calendar.

"There's still a fantastic atmosphere, and a great social mix," insists communications manager Andy Clifton. "Lords and ladies will be chatting with normal working-class people, and everyone is here for the same thing – the races."

"Even the grumpiest Cheltenham resident would be hard pushed to complain about the races. Considering the amount of Guinness that is drunk, the behaviour is impeccable", says Chris Dee, tourism manager for Gloucestershire County Council.

The trackside bookie

David Williams, Ladbrokes

"Even after doing Cheltenham for years, it still makes my knees go weak. The bookies will be on the rails between the grandstand and the racecourse. There will be about 100 of us crammed in there – big firms and independent bookies. The first race is at 2pm on Tuesday, and the punters will be pouring in from late morning, after a Guinness and a bet – they don't stop until the last race of the day at 5.20pm. For those few hours it's absolutely relentless! There will be three of us on our stand – one taking the money, one watching the odds and another recording bets. The Irish punters are big betters. The liquidity in the ring is enormous – it's not unusual to see £5,000, £10,000, even £20,000 bets. It's still all cash – Cheltenham is a traditional racecourse, and the transaction between bookie and punter is part of that tradition. We can lose money – last year the Cheltenham Gold Cup was won by the favourite, and we were cleaned out – punters were struggling to carry all the cash away. There was certainly blood in the ring that day!"

The punter

Eddie Wiley

"I go every year – 19 years in a row now. There are two reasons: one is meeting up with old friends, who are there year after year. You can walk into the same bar at the same time every year and they'll all be there. It's marvellous! There is a guy who rents his house to us every year, and takes his whole family on holiday so we can move in. The other part of it, obviously, is the racing. Cheltenham is the best racing on the island. Some people think the race has got a lot quieter, that it's not quite as debauched as it used to be, but I don't think that's true. What attracted us in the beginning is still there – meeting up with old friends in a brilliant sporting environment. The English-Irish rivalry has been a bit more pointed in recent years, but it's all done with good humour. We like to go over there and watch our horses win! Every year you swear you'll never go again – it's an endurance test for your liver and your wallet – but after winter the daffodils pop up and suddenly you're thinking how much you want to be there. Cheltenham makes you young again."

The hotel owner

Tom Ross – Hotel du Vin

"This is our first year of doing the race week. The hotel is going to be full, and our restaurant has been booked up for months. The bar is going to be heaving, too – we'll definitely be up to our maximum capacity of 160 every night. It will be like Saturday night every night. All our staff are coming in, and we are shipping in other staff from hotels around the country – it's the only way we will cope! We are expecting to double our takings this month, just because of race week. With prices, we looked at what other hotels were doing in the area, and followed suit. Normally we charge £145 for a room, but next week it'll be £300 for a room. Our guests are usually late 20s to early 50s, but we'll get a whole range of people next week. We're not going to change our style to cater for the racegoers, though – it'll be fine wine rather than Guinness! I'm excited – all the staff are – but also quite nervous. Hopefully I'll be able to sneak away to the races at some point – I've got tickets but might be too tired after working until 5am every morning!"

The jockey

Tom Scudamore

"I grew up in Condicote, near Cheltenham, my dad was a jockey and won quite a lot of races there. I live in Devon now but come back to Cheltenham every season because I've ridden in the spring races at the course since I was 17 years old. I've been racing there every year for the past eight years now. Each race is important, but this does feel more significant than most – the jockeys are much quieter and more nervous in the weights room than normal. I'll be racing every day this year, though I'm not sure yet how many races I'll have to do on each day – these things often get decided at the last moment. I've been training really hard for these races all year, so I'm keen to get going. It is stressful, because how you perform at Cheltenham matters so much, but you can't win every race. It is also difficult because, when it comes to it, some horses will perform and fulfil their potential, and some won't – you just don't know until the day. At the same time, I'm not complaining because I'm getting paid to do what I love, so it's exciting, too."

The trainer

Tom Mullins

"We've been training the horses as hard as they can go in the run-up to this event. If you have a horse good enough to compete in Cheltenham it's like being in the Olympics. I have two horses that will hopefully race – Made in Taipan, who will race in the first races on both Tuesday and Wednesday, and Chelsea Harbour, who is lined up to run in the Gold Cup Race on Friday. They'll be stabled at the track, and I'll be getting up at 6.30am every day to check that they are fed and watered. If you see that they haven't drunk much the night before it's worrying, because that can seriously damage a horse's chances. I'll give them a walk around the yard in the morning and the same in the afternoon, but mostly I let them rest. It is very different being a trainer at Cheltenham rather than a spectator – you have to be on your best behaviour, because you're probably working harder than you've done all year. It's fantastic fun for everyone else who is there, though. They take the attitude that 'what happens in Rome stays in Rome', and there's always a lot of fun."