The greatest jump festival on earth?

2019 Cheltenham Festival – Champion Day – Cheltenham Racecourse

The Friday before the most anticipated and iconic jump racing festival of the year, Cheltenham Festival, The Jockey Club’s Regional Director for Cheltenham and the South West, Ian Renton, is giving a tour of the Festival’s temporary village.

Chelt Ian Renton

43,000 square metres of tented village will help house the 40,000 guests expected in this year’s Festival hospitality who will eat in the its many bars and restaurants (of which more later). And that’s just a fraction of the total of around 260,000 people expected to attend the four-day Festival.

This year, the temporary village covers more square metres than all the racecourse’s permanent facilities put together.

In this age of political correctness, the team at Cheltenham Racecourse won’t say how many bottles of champagne will be consumed, or pints of beer downed, but 45,000 bread rolls will help sop up the alcohol, along with nine tonnes of potatoes and five tons of smoked and fresh salmon.

Since Ian Renton took over as Regional Director in 2012, the event has been transformed. £45 million of investment helped the redevelopment of the racecourse, including the building of the glorious Princess Royal Stand, the See You Then and Quevega bars.

When I last interviewed him properly, in 2015, he was already driving improvements. He said he wanted to provide the same service at Cheltenham Racecourse as at a five-star hotel, and walking around the site a few days ahead of the Festival, his ambitions are being more than achieved.

It’s like walking around the Festival site with Phineas Barnum, of The Greatest Showman fame. All around are his ideas, or the ideas of others to which he’s given the green light.

And Ian is as excited and enthusiastic in the run-up to the 2020 Festival as he was with his first one.

I join the tour a little late (I’d forgotten to put aside time for the increased security at the gate) and meet them in the Guinness Village. For many committed race-goers (Many of them having commuted into Cheltenham on the 30 extra Ryanair flights from Dublin to Birmingham during The Festival period), this is the heart of the Festival.

During Festival days it’s almost impossible to fight unscathed through the vast throngs of inebriated Irishmen clutching pints of Guinness. It’s a case of head down and power forward to get to the other side. Today, however, it’s empty.

We head over to the Jockey Club area. Here we hit marquees with carpet, smart sofas, tables, bars and most importantly, a fabulous view of the racecourse itself.

2019 Cheltenham Festival – St Patrick’s Thursday – Cheltenham Racecourse
The Horse & Groom Pub, photo credit Steven Paston/The Jockey Club via PA Images

Ian is getting more and more tigger-ish and enthusiastic as we go. We head through the hospitality areas, to private boxes and onto a new initiative last year that’s back, bigger than ever. The Horse & Groom Pub is an amazing temporary pub. So clever is the interior design, you completely forget you’re standing in a tent.

It’s fully booked for the festival already. As are most of the restaurants. Which is probably one reason why Ian’s so chipper. Cheltenham Race Course’s Luke Fryer is managing the Horse & Groom Pub. He’s expecting 320 people every day for all four days in this facility alone.

Chelt Horse & Groom pub

Then it’s onto the Cleeve Suite, a restaurant with 150 covers, and next to this are fair few private boxes, all accommodating around 40 people each. Each box overlooks the racecourse about two furlongs down from the finish line. “In some of these boxes you can not only hear the horses, you can smell them too,”.

Never let a bit of horse sweat get in the way of your Lobster Thermidore and champagne cocktail.

Attention to detail is evident everywhere. Months ahead of the event, the team have meetings about the colour of the carpets the walls, the decor and even the design of chairs for each individual restaurant. Some are upholstered, others funky clear perspex or smart black and chrome.

Then to Ian’s pièce de résistance. Chez Roux. This is the fifth year that the legendary restaurateur Albert Roux and his equally famous son Michel have brought their Michelin-starred cuisine to Cheltenham Racecourse, and again, it’s almost fully booked, along with the Chez Roux private boxes. Michel’s daughter Emily sadly won’t be here this year, she’s having a baby.

Chelt Chez Roux

Four days before the Festival starts, the most glorious smells are wafting out of the Chez Roux kitchens.

Ian says that the Monday before the Festival, a select few are invited to taste test the menu. I could do that job if they asked, but I expect there’s a long queue ahead of me for that privilege. The Roux will be there. But not me. I think Ian mentioned it costs around £1,000 per head for a visit to the Festival which includes a meal at Chez Roux. I can see why.

2019 Cheltenham Festival – Ladies Day – Cheltenham Racecourse
Photo credit: Steven Paston/The Jockey Club via PA Images

Ian’s Head of Operations,  David McKinnon, has clear ideas about the individual design of each restaurant, and Ian winces at a couple of them – though I think they’re fab. The Champion’s Bar has a green wall and purple carpet. Very millennial.

Chelt Champion Bar

But the tour’s not over. It’s onto the Theatre Restaurant. It’s still being finished as we tour around but the restaurant looks like an 1870s London Theatre. Here the kitchen is the stage, and the culinary theme is Asian. Again there is a balcony overlooking the racecourse.

When Ian took over at Cheltenham in 2012, 80 per cent of the hospitality was contracted out to agencies, 20 per cent was done by the Racecourse itself. That percentage has now flipped on its head.

The Racecourse now employs 350 chefs for each day of the event and 3,500 catering staff. 750 students from more than 20 colleges work at the Festival each day and there are five furlongs of temporary bar counters (for the uninitiated one furlong is about 201 metres).

Theatre@ (5 of 5)

The food is also top class. Up to 70 per cent of the fruit and vegetables are sourced within the Cotswolds and all of the cheese used is produced within 50 miles of the Racecourse too.

And still the tented village goes on. We head away from the fabulous restaurants with views of the racecourse and move to the second tier of hospitality, including the Moscow Flyer Restaurant (the restaurant is named after a top-class National Hunt horse which won the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2003 and 2005, the Tingle Creek Chase in 2003 and 2004 and the Arkle Challenge Trophy in 2002.)

Elsewhere across the Racecouse, the standards (and ticket costs) have risen – because the quality and experience has improved significantly. At the Moscow Flyer, Ian says that racegoers can still enjoy good food at a price point they can afford. That’s £275 or £360 for Gold Cup Day.

We leave the Moscow Flyer behind and head on to The Orchard. Based on The Melbourne Cup’s Birdcage, this is a new and exclusive venue which attracts sponsor brands who don’t want to be involved in more overt race sponsorship. Here you’ll see Bentley, and Holland & Holland among others. And there’s funky pods around the enclosed space for smaller, more exclusive gatherings. As we walk through, Ian mentions casually that they’re about to install a helicopter in the centre of the courtyard. As you do.

Chelt Ferris Wheel

On to another Renton initiative, This one to keep the kids happy (well, the 18-28-year olds). Welcome to a full-on fairground, with a carousel, ferris wheel, dance floor and more bars, where DJs and bands will play from 4.30-6pm.give more space to those who are truly dedicated racegoers.”

Aren’t they here for the racing Ian? “There are some racegoers who aren’t perhaps as dedicated as others, and this is a new attraction to entertain them. As long as what we offer isn’t damaging the racegoers’ experience, then we’re up for it. And this is on land which was previously used as car park. It’s away from the main arenas so it will give more space to those who are truly dedicated racegoers.”

A win/win/win then. For racegoers, for racing newbies and for Cheltenham Racecourse keen to keep visitors on the site for longer.

More and more marquee restaurants and bars follow: The Owners & Trainers restaurant, The Champion’s Walk, Moet & Chandon Champagne Bar and finally, onto the media centre, which will accommodate up to 1,000 media over the four days. It overlooks the Paddock, the best view if you can’t fight your way through the crowds on the ground or the hospitality levels

Rain, wind and Coronavirus permitting (and the racecourse is installing extra toilets and handwashing stations for this eventuality), it’s going to be another amazing week of racing in Cheltenham next week.

And Gloucestershire should be proud. In 2015, the economic impact of The Festival was put at £100 million.

If you haven’t been to Cheltenham Festival, go. Don’t let anything put you off. Racing devotee or casual observer, this event has an atmosphere like no other. Win or lose money – you’ll have a fantastic time. Just this year, perhaps don’t hug or shake hands as much. Save it until next year, because I promise, you’ll want to come back.