And they’re off… NI racing fans gear up for return of Cheltenham

Horse racing fans in Northern Ireland have spoken of their excitement at the return of Cheltenham this week, with record crowds expected to travel to the event in Prestbury Park.

massive 275,000 punters are set to attend the festival over four days, including an estimated 55,000 from Ireland.

Keen horse racing fan Ross Armstrong (41) from Hillsborough is among those ready to take in every race.

“I’ve only been once before and it was a unique experience, so it certainly has been missed,” he said.

“I’m really looking forward to going back. Most racing fans would compare it to the Olympics.”

With more of a focus on jump racing than flat racing, he said an added appeal was that the same horses and riders often return every year.

“When horses win races on the flat then they go to stud and you never see them again. So with jump races you see a lot of returning champions with new challengers trying to take them on.

“I suppose the nature of the races themselves lend to more drama than flat racing. You get a large element of the crowd that are quite knowledgeable about every element and it’s a real pilgrimage for a lot of people.”

Asked to explain the buzz that dedicated race fans travel experience, Ross described it simply as “Christmas for grown ups”.

“There really is that kind of atmosphere when you’re there,” he said.

“I couldn’t believe it when I walked into one of the hospitality areas at 11 in the morning and there was a DJ playing, and it was electric as if it was a Saturday night out.

“There’s about 70,000 people there along with all the top horse trainers from the UK and Ireland so it’s just a real big jamboree of horse racing.”

Horse trainer David Christie is based in Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, and said he can’t wait to return to competition.

Along with his son David Christie Jnr, they could have three horses competing; Winged Leader, Koshari and Vaucelet. Unable to travel over to Cheltenham last year, Mr Christie said it just wasn’t the same without the huge crowds.

“It’s a huge thing for racing and that area in general, it’s colossal for the hospitality industry alone,” he said.

“But apart from that, you can just see very good horses race. There will be record crowds there this time around.

“From the trainers and jockeys’ point of view, last year they raced and there was only a handful of people there to see them.

“Whereas this time, you’ll have massive crowds to cheer them on which will make a huge difference.”

Asked about what it takes to prepare his horses for such an elite event, he said: “If you imagine what it takes for an athlete to prepare for the Olympic Games, that’s really it.

“We’ve been building towards this for the last two years, with the last six months specifically.

“In the last month it’s like a final every day, you’re trying to tune your horse to the very limit without overdoing it or picking up an injury.

“If you can get a horse that’s good enough to go there it’s a massive thing.

“There’s a lot of people in this industry that never happens to so you just feel very lucky if you have a horse that’s good enough to go there.”

Closer to home, bookmaker Paul McLean is hoping to see a return of customers to betting shops after the disruption of the pandemic.

“We’ve missed it badly. The last proper Cheltenham in 2020 was one of the last big events, along with a Liverpool game, that was almost blamed for spreading Covid,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“Last year, we were all closed so now we’re looking forward avidly to seeing customers returning to the shops.”

He said Cheltenham is very much the top week of the year for bookmakers.

“Everyone talks about the Grand National, yes it’s the biggest race, but Cheltenham is by far the biggest week for betting shops.

“I’m very interested to see if customers will return to the shops after so many lockdowns and restrictions in the past couple of years.

“Customers have been a bit hesitant in returning to the shops and the pubs. That has becoming backing back to normal slowly, so this is the big test for betting.”

Ian Renton is regional director of the Jockey Club, which stages the Cheltenham Festival.

“We always sell out on Gold Cup day but we sold out earlier than ever this year — we sold out in January. A few weeks ago we sold out of the Thursday, which we’ve never done before,” Mr Renton said.

“It’s wonderful to see the response. It just shows how much the festival was missed last year.

“Even almost all the restaurants are also sold out. It’s been so popular this year.”

He added that the organisers would be donating to the British Red Cross appeal for Ukraine, and racegoers will be encouraged to contribute as well.

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