Interview: Ian Renton is jumping with joy

Ian Renton Cheltenham Racecourse

Ian Renton Cheltenham Racecourse - Credit: NG

He knew he couldn’t improve the world-class racing when he arrived at Cheltenham racecourse, but Ian Renton couldn’t wait to get his hands on everything else, as Nicky Godding found out

Cheltenham Racecourse development

Cheltenham Racecourse development - Credit: Archant

Ian Renton, the Jockey Club’s South West regional director, has been visiting the Cheltenham Festival since he was 15. That’s 40 years of attending the world’s best jump racing festival in every capacity: with friends, as a punter, as a guest and in 2012, as the boss after moving from Arena Leisure to take over not only Cheltenham, but the Jockey Club’s other racecourses in the South West: Wincanton, Warwick and Exeter.

“Cheltenham is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite racecourse,” he says. “I love jump racing, it’s where my heart is. It’s the pinnacle of the jump-racing calendar and I have barely missed a Festival in 40 years. When I got the job, having seen and experienced it in every capacity, I knew what I wanted to improve.”

He arrived as plans were on the table for £45 million of improvements at the racecourse and he is now overseeing the development of a brand new grandstand with capacity for 6,500, two new bars (the See You Then Bar, which opened in October and another which opened in November), a refurbished weighing room and improvements to the bridges on Southam Road helping traffic flow in and out of the racecourse.

The entire redevelopment, which is being handed back in stages, will be complete in 2016 and the new grandstand will open in time for next year’s Festival.

Ian’s grandfather trained jumpers, including the 1950 Grand National winner Freebooter, and encouraged Ian’s love of racing. His father also rode as an amateur and for a few years the family lived in North Yorkshire, close to his grandfather’s stables in Ripon where resided probably the most famous horse of all time: Red Rum. “My grandfather bought him as a two-year-old, after he won a seller at Aintree. I used to talk to him in the stables.”

Ian was so passionate about racing that he chose Cambridge for his degree study, on the basis that it was close to Newmarket and spent three years extending his racing knowledge (and getting a degree in land economy on the side).

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Then he turned his back on everything he’d learned and went into the wine trade. It didn’t last long. The lure of the racing was too strong to ignore and when he spotted what was reputed to be the first job in racing ever to be advertised: trainee manager at Cheltenham Racecourse, working with Edward Gillespie, he applied.

There followed a steady career progression: three years at Cheltenham, including managing Warwick, 12 years as manager and clerk at Salisbury and Wincanton, the latter eight of which he combined with clerk of the course of another iconic racecourse: Aintree. He left after the 2001 Grand National, one of the toughest ever ridden but where every horse and rider returned safely.

Ian Renton Cheltenham Racecourse

Ian Renton Cheltenham Racecourse - Credit: NG

His new job was as managing director of Arena Leisure, which owned six racecourses. While he was there Arena bought Doncaster, subsequently redeveloped under his watch.

When he took over at Cheltenham in 2012, he wanted to improve the customer experience. “Cheltenham is probably a victim of its own success. Gold Cup day attracts 70,000 people, and it’s difficult to provide the same standard of service as when we have 10,000 racegoers.”

It is ridiculously ambitious to want to provide the same service at the racecourse as at a five star hotel, but Ian’s determined to do what he can to achieve just that.

“Expectations for corporate hospitality are increasing and we have an untapped top end market. Our most expensive restaurant, the Panoramic, was sold out long before the 2013 Festival, so we spent six months trying to persuade everyone to trade down.”

He wasn’t going to let a commercial opportunity like that slip away again and last year invited the Michelin-starred Albert Roux and his son Michel Roux Jnr to open a restaurant. “It was fantastic and people happily paid a premium price. They will be back for the 2015 Festival,” he says.

But it’s not all about the top end: A dustman and duke will happily stand side by side cheering a race on. “There is a good market for entry level hospitality and we do that too,” adds Ian.

Cheltenham prides itself on its egalitarianism, he says. “We don’t have a dress code. After all, if you come here in January or March you just want to be warm. The thousands of people coming from Ireland start saving for the next year’s trip the day after the Festival has ended. Even racehorse ownership doesn’t have to be elitist.”

He’s referring to Sire De Grugy’s win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase during the 2014 Cheltenham Festival. Its owner, Steve Preston, bought the horse with a 50th birthday present fund from family and friends but needed the trainer to take a stake in the horse, so he persuaded Gary Moore, who apparently combines training with selling second hand cars, to take him on. Victory was sweet when Gary’s son, Jamie as Sire De Grugy’s jockey, won the race.

Ian is keen to widen participation in racing further, and before Christmas he teamed up with Rock The Cotswolds, the campaign that is showcasing the world-class events, venues, creativity, people and businesses that call the Cotswolds home. “To help attract a new breed of racegoer we invited Rock the Cotswolds to help us celebrate the sociable side of racing, what happens after a day’s racing when the horses are back in their stables, the jockeys and bookies have headed home.”

The upcoming world-beating facilities will certainly help, because Cheltenham racecourse isn’t just competing with Ascot and Aintree, but with Wimbledon, Lords, Silverstone and the Open Golf. The only thing missing, as far as I can see, is quality accommodation, and Ian admits that a hotel is under consideration. “It is the obvious next step and would be a huge asset to the racecourse, and the town, but it’s not top of our agenda. We want to complete the current £45 million development first.”

Cheltenham has a number of very good medium sized hotels, but not one that can take those attending the growing number of conferences and exhibitions held at the racecourse’s arena: The Centaur. “We regularly dine up to 700 people and stage events for 2,000,” explains Ian. “And we would certainly like to stage a major concert here in the future.”

Cheltenham Racecourse is diversifying; so how sustainable is the world of racing? “There are a significant number of wealthy owners who enjoy buying and owning good quality horses,” says Ian. “Attendances and hospitality at the major courses and festivals are in good shape, however attracting people on weekdays is more tricky. My portfolio of Warwick, Wincanton and Exeter hold smaller meetings mid-week, and are supported by the benefits of Cheltenham, which go across the region. We have also converted all our racecourses to jump racing, because we think we do it really well. Across the South West, we’ve got a very strong group of jump trainers including Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs, Alan King and David Pipe.”

Ian, whose home is in West Oxfordshire with his wife Jean, lives the dream, but doesn’t ride it. He admits instead to being a more enthusiastic spectator. “I spend a lot of time racing, and also enjoy a game of rugby.” He supports Gloucester, of course. “I also ski and play tennis.”

These are minor distractions. Racing is clearly his passion. So my advice to Ian is, don’t give up the day job – because you’ll never, ever find another one like it.

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