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55,000 Irish racing fans set to descend on Cheltenham as festival returns

Ian Renton, regional director of the Jockey Club said about 15-20pc of all punters would be coming from Ireland

Fun times: Ladies Day is always a popular part of the Cheltenham festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Ciara O'Loughlin

Irish racing fans are poised to descend on Cheltenham in force, with 55,000 making the journey to Prestbury Park for what is expected to be a record-breaking year.

A total of 275,000 punters are expected over the four days of the festival. That’s about 10,000 more than usual.

Ian Renton, regional director of the Jockey Club, which is responsible for the staging of the Cheltenham Festival, said about 15-20pc of all punters would be coming from Ireland.

“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.”

Mr Renton said the plight of the Ukrainian people would not be forgotten about over the four days. The Jockey Club will be supporting the British Red Cross’s appeal by donating a sum of money.

He said racegoers would also be invited to donate. The ways in which punters can donate will be explained on big screens, racecards and over the PA systems.

“The festival is a major social highlight for a very large number of the racegoers in attendance, probably even more so this year given the 2021 festival was held behind closed doors,” Mr Renton said.

“However, this year’s event is obviously taking place against the backdrop of major conflict in Ukraine.

“Given that coverage of the festival extends far beyond the coverage racing receives on a day-to-day basis, we are keen to hand as much exposure [as we can] to the invaluable work undertaken by humanitarian charities in these desperate times.

“Therefore, using a race title to promote these humanitarian efforts seemed a very appropriate act for us to undertake.”

Tipperary jockey Rachael Blackmore, who won six races at last year’s festival, is the Jockey Club’s newest ambassador.

“I think she brilliantly represents everything we stand for,” he added. “I am a massive fan of hers, especially after she had a relatively late change in her career.

“I think she is one of the nicest people and one of the most modest people I have ever come across for someone who has achieved so much in such a short space of time.

“To see what she brought last year, in such difficult times during the pandemic, the way she lit up the festival and helped promote brilliant images in the face of adversity for so many people, I think it was fantastic that she went on to Aintree to do similar.

“I am one of her greatest admirers. It’s great to have her working with us to promote everything that’s great about the sport.”

Meanwhile, with 55,000 Irish fans travelling to the Cotswolds, travel agents have reported a “big surge” in people booking Cheltenham holidays.

Mary Lee, from Newbridge Travel Agents, Co Kildare, said customers had been booking earlier than ever before for the festival.

“I think the fact that they haven’t been for two years, there is great interest,” she said. “People booked way earlier this year than I have seen in a good few years.

“I had my first booking in April last year. Normally I would get a few enquiries from people but no one would start booking.

“You would start getting the first bookings by the summer. People wanted something to look forward to.” Ms Lee said her bookings for Cheltenham were back to approximately the same numbers she had in 2018.

“ There’s been a big surge, it’s great,” she added. “I would carry about 150 people for the week and they are all doing different things.

“I tailor-make the packages to suit people, so whatever you want to do, I can do it for you.

“This year, definitely, people have come back to agents. I don’t know whether that’s a knock-on effect from the pandemic or because I would have extremely good rates, because I negotiate my rates ear-to-ear with the hotels.”

Ms Lee’s packages start at around €750 per person for two nights, going up to €1,200-€1,300.

Currently, a room in the Holiday Inn Express in Cheltenham town centre is going for €1,001 for the opening night of the festival.

According to a poll conducted by Bounce Insights on behalf of Paddy Power, 41pc of Irish punters surveyed said that, when betting, they relied on their knowledge of a well-known jockey.

In the same poll, 38pc said they bet by the name of a horse, 8pc said they went on how the horse looks, 7pc said they chose according to the horse’s number, and 6pc picked because of the colour of the jockey’s silks.​​​​​​​

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