- Credit: Empics Sports Photography Ltd.
It’s heads down and a full gallop towards the greatest racing Festival on earth. Tracy Spiers has been behind the scenes
Within four days more than 248,000 pints of Guinness, 120,000 bottles of wine, 45,000 baps and 8,000 sticky toffee puddings will be consumed. In fact that’s more pints than the overall number of people who will attend Cheltenham Festival - which is just weeks away once the New Year’s Day race is upon us.
When one thinks of the staggering number of visitors who book into the numerous hotels and bed and breakfast venues in Cheltenham and surrounding Cotswold towns and villages, just so they can soak up the unique atmosphere at Prestbury - and bet millions of pounds - it is enough to raise the blood pressure. It is estimated that the Festival alone brings in £50 million to the local economy.
So how on earth does this prestigious award-winning race course cope with such an onslaught of people? And what does it take to put on such an event that draws the eyes of the world’s media, celebrities and race lovers alike?
I would say the answer is tremendous preparation, perseverance from every single member of staff and attention to the minutest of detail which includes a meeting just to ensure the napkins match the tables in the different site restaurants.
Over the past few months I have had the privilege of understanding what makes Cheltenham tick: meeting staff and getting a taste of the sheer mechanisms of this place. It is an enormous undertaking, but it is down to year after year of reflecting, improving and ensuring the visitor’s journey from car park to race is as stressfree and enjoyable as possible.
Once the hooves start pounding on January 1st, the hearts start pumping and adrenaline starts kicking in for all those involved in organising Cheltenham Festival, which this year takes place on March 15-18. Partners are warned they will not be the centre of attention for a few weeks as their respective man or lady gets down to business and works meticulously to get through their job list.
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“Once New Year’s Day is out the way, it is pretty much heads down for everyone to ensure we get all the ducks in a row when the gates open on March 15 and we deliver four days of amazing racing. However we never know what is around the corner especially when the race days arrive,” admits Sophia Dale, press officer for Cheltenham, who looks after 800 media representatives during the Festival.
No matter how much planning takes place, there is always the unplanned that can cause a few headaches and challenges: the weather being one of them.
“Three years ago was one of the coldest Marches in racing times and temperatures dropped to almost minus 12 degrees wind chill the night before the Festival started. The ground then becomes a major issue, because if the frost has not come out of the ground, we can not race,” adds Sophia.
“That year the beer pipes and taps froze, the concrete arena around the paddock was a skating rink and trolleys transporting glasses, crockery and food were sliding all over the place. It was a bit of a nightmare!”
And all credit to staff, Cheltenham won a showcase award for Operational Excellence from The Racecourse Association (RCA) for delivering the Festival in such trying conditions.
Putting the weather aside for a moment, there are various practical issues to get right. Building a three storey 33,000 square metre temporary structure to accommodate visitors is one of the biggest operations. In mid December, contractors move in and take three months to install this 140m long, triple decker steel structure which is the biggest of its kind in Europe - not that one would know it is temporary. This then has to be kitted out to the highest standard including an impressive wooden bar, phone charging points, balconies, lifts, facilities, kitchens and a sofa seated area. The other major factor is of course looking after the catering needs of 40,000 plus who attend the four day event. Heading up this task is Phil Roberts, general manager for Jockey Club Catering at Cheltenham, a joint partnership between Jockey Club Racecourses, the UK’s leading racecourse and venues group, and Compass Group UK & Ireland.
“The Festival has the largest non-fixed catering equipment in the whole of Europe. There are 33 separate kitchens in the tented catering village and that doesn’t include the fixed kitchens within the site itself,” explains Phil, who has 4,000 kitchen staff - including 250 chefs - to ensure the 40,000 race goers are fed over the four days during the Festival in the catering village and all 14 of the racecourse restaurants. Catering staff deliver eight core menus in these venues.
Phil took on his post 18 months ago but looks forward to his second season, knowing his team is more than able to fulfil the challenges that come their way and, there will be many.
“It is certainly like being on a knife edge. There are so many contributing factors you can not plan for - road and rail, which have impact on staff and deliveries and then there’s the weather. So many factors can work against you, but we have an amazing team where everybody is responsible for their own level of expertise.”
“You can not switch off when you get to the operation level we are working at. You live and breathe it and sleep is just an inconvenience for those four days. Yet there is no greater buzz than to stand back afterwards with pride and passion knowing we delivered it,” adds Phil, who can cover 14 miles a day just checking the site to ensure every tiny detail is as it should be such as ice buckets in the right place and correct labels are out.
But there are incentives for catering staff to ensure both team spirit and morale is high. “We do give out awards and recognition achievements every day such as the best performer on the day. It really is there for motivation, reward and recognition,” admits Phil.
“The biggest highlight for me is watching the team rise to the challenge of performing at such high standards and finishing the event well. Then there is the questioning, how can we do this better and what can we do to make it the best experience ever for those who come to Cheltenham?”
It is this questioning and always going the extra mile to ensure the race goer has a memorable time, that makes Cheltenham what it is.
Facts & Figures
236,472 – pints of Guinness knocked back by spectators at The Festival in 2014.
516,000 – pints served
120,000 - bottles of wine drunk at The Festival in 2014.
45,000 – bread rolls eaten at The Festival in 2014.
45,000 - rounds of sandwiches served to customers
34,000 - hospitality meals served over the 4 days
8,000 – sticky toffee puddings eaten during The Festival.
8,000 - gallons of tea and coffee served
250 - chefs on site.
40 - staff coaches per day, sourced from all over the country, as far away as Liverpool, London, Cardiff, Swansea, Birmingham & Coventry
5 - tons of smoked and fresh salmon consumer over the four days
1 - tons of British beef eaten during The Festival.
Cheltenham’s Little Diamonds
During their stay at Cheltenham for the four day Festival, thousands of visitors stay in a whole host of hotels ensuring a boost to the local economy. These are the Little Diamonds according to Cheltenham’s Jockey Club.
Coombe End Manor, Elkstone