18th February 2015

The Festival – what to expect from the development and how we make it happen

From Peter Thomas at the Racing Post. 

IF YOU’RE the kind of person who thrives on sporting statistics, you’ll be pleased to hear that, according to a recent survey, 236,472 pints of Guinness are routinely consumed at the Cheltenham Festival, along with 45,000 bread rolls and 10,745 bottles of house champagne.

You may view the Guinness figure as disappointingly low and the bread-roll count rather too exact for credibility, while I’m sure you’ll find it hard to believe that 1.27 tons of sultanas are scoffed over the four days (presumably as part of the world’s largest bread and butter pudding), but all in all I think we can agree the stats bode well for the ongoing and hedonistic future of the meeting.

Which is just as well, because continuity is what we need, given visitors to this year’s event will be entering a development project that promises to change the face of the course forever and for better, but is currently some way short of finished.

By March 2016 the new £45 million grandstand and the rest of this remarkable project are scheduled to be complete in every detail, but in the meantime racegoers might be wondering just what is going to

hit them when they walk through the gates next month.

“I’m determined people won’t come here and think it’s a building site,” says racecourse supremo Ian Renton, which would be an easier line to pull off were he not wearing a hard hat and a fluorescent bib. Undaunted, he continues: “I want people to feel what we’re doing hasn’t caused any disruption and that even at this stage it’s been an enhancement. It’s a three-year programme but we want it to improve people’s day even now.”

That, then, is the aim, but what is the reality? Well, given that all the construction cranes that aren’t in Dubai seem to be hard at work in Prestbury Park at the moment, the desire for non-disruption might seem fanciful, but Renton and his team are impressively confident that, while work may continue until the 11th hour, it will not diminish the festival experience.

Today, amid the insistent clamour of power tools, the 170-metre triple-decker marquee – the longest in Europe, according to head of operations David Mackinnon – is winging its way towards completion, but the process hasn’t been without its challenges.

Renton seized upon the upheaval as an opportunity to change small but significant elements of the festival layout that had been in place since time immemorial and, through the sharp intakes of breath from the old school, discovered that even something as apparently minor as shunting the tented village back 20 metres to create more space for the racegoer had substantial ramifications.

“You can’t move these things I was told,” remembers Renton. “If you do, you have to move the electricity, get the gas in the right place, the water in the right place, the drainage in the right place. It was like pulling teeth at times, but we moved them a little bit last year and we’re going all out this year.”

Mackinnon, stalking the site with a sense of purpose and a large notebook, has more statistics – concerning the 450 construction workers on the site as we speak and the half a million man hours that will go into the building of the main stand – but he also has long lists of fine points that have to be considered. The broad plan in the marquees involves 30,000 square metres of floor space and two and a half miles of internal walling, but with them come other issues.

“The detail you have to go into is enormous,” he says. “With 30,000 square metres of floor comes 30,000 square metres of carpet, the colour of the carpets dictates the colour of the chairs, which dictates the linen, which then dictates the flowers, the badges, the staff uniform, all well in advance. That’s the reality of the process, the layers of detail, although carpets aren’t my area of expertise.

“There are purple ones in the Final Flight bar and beige in the Chez Roux restaurant on the top floor, with different thicknesses in each, but luckily no underlay. And then after the festival they all get thrown away.”

Renton echoes the slight sense of melancholy at the transitory nature of temporary facilities. “When the marquees are complete, we like to think it has the feel of a permanent structure, but by April it’s all down again.

“The important thing now, though, is making sure it’s all done to deadline, which is a challenge, with Kier, our construction partner, working two days ahead of the marquee constructors, followed by catering coming in to build the bars and dress the rooms. Yesterday they were just completing the ground works – today, look at what’s happening.”

“We’re getting quite good at it,” concurs communications manager Sophia Brudenell, surveying the organised chaos (what Mackinnon calls the “choreography”) with satisfaction. “You may think it’s a building site,” adds Renton, “but we know better.”

If what is happening at the foot of the Cheltenham hill is impressive in its scope, what goes on further up the home straight is nothing short of staggering. The new grandstand is huge, jaw-dropping, vertiginous and most definitely won’t be taken down on March 14. It sits, unfinished yet very much in progress, commanding views across the country’s most celebrated track, waiting patiently for the day when it can be declared officially open, but for now it provides an irrefutable insight into the future of Cheltenham.

On the top floor, royalty will, in time, sit high enough to commune with the racing gods in turf heaven; it’s in the basement, though, that the ordinary racegoer will feel the first benefits of this bold project. It’s here that, to the immense, almost obsessive, pride of Renton, one of the recurring gripes of the festival is being addressed.

“There are 156 loos,” he says, unprompted. “If there’s a gap anywhere, we put loos in it. I’m sure there will still be queues but hopefully they’ll be shorter.” The tiling is green in the gents and, so they say, purple in the ladies, although at this point I made my excuses and left. There’s no doubting, though, that there are a lot of loos.

Bladder relief aside, the big bugbears of the festival have long been viewing space and drinking space, and the main concerns of those visiting the new Cheltenham this year will surely centre on these two issues. The word is, however, that, far from being reduced by the project, both will be enhanced.

“Are we going to reduce capacity while this is being built?” asks Renton, who plainly has a positive answer up his sleeve. “Actually, capacity will be hugely increased because 2,700 people can watch from the steppings in front of the grandstand, and we’d always agreed that the ground floor would be handed back to us for use as a temporary bar.

“Give Kier their due, they’ve hit every deadline, sometimes with only 12 hours to spare and a few nerves on my part, but they’ve hit them, and to be in this state with four weeks to go is very pleasing. You’re always looking for ways to improve the customer experience, because you’ve no need to change what goes on out there.”

Out there, the grass is green and lush and the weather seems content to allow the 2015 festival and its attendant building project to continue unimpeded. Clerk of the course Simon Claisse has walked the course and now sits in his office, enjoying the weather outside, while his team of groundstaff continue their never-ending preparation for the big meeting.

Over a well-earned cup of tea in their shed, Keith Jones, keeper of the steeplechase obstacles, speaks of the tasks of the next four weeks with the calm of a man who has seen festivals come and go in serene yet unstoppable fashion.

Yes, he and his colleagues have five miles of rails to move, 18 flights of hurdles to make up and put in position,

24 60ft-wide fences to cover in tarpaulin to keep out the wet (and when you consider that they use 5,000 bundles of birch a year at £5 a bundle, the effort is worth it), but the schedule is fine-tuned to allow for an uninterrupted cuppa.

“Our work is onward through the year,” he says, “saving ground, moving rails, steadily preparing, and then we just keep our fingers crossed that we don’t have to put frost covers down.”

A chorus of groans goes up as the Siberian winter of two years ago is recalled, so we repair to the temporary works canteen to canvass the views of Steve Finch, maintenance team leader, who became a proud father for the fifth time just ten days ago yet looks to have not a care in the world.

“I’m back after a week’s paternity leave and glad to get out of the house,” he smiles. “If I look relaxed, it’s because we’ve got to be. It’s a year-round job preparing for this and now we’re just trying to ensure as few hiccups as possible.

“The toilets are the thing we get most issues with, but it’s also a lot different this year in the tented village. We try to plan it all in advance, but this year it’s about making sure the right pipes and connections are in the right places. Just moving a marquee four or five metres can have a huge impact.

“It can be quite stressful, battling your way through the crowds when there’s anything to fix on a raceday, but I enjoy it. I’ve lived in Cheltenham all my life and I used to go racing a lot, so I know the things that need tweaking for the racegoer.

“The trouble is, I don’t have time to watch a race any more. Your friends think you’re the luckiest man in the world, but it’s not quite like that. It feels like one long day that lasts for two weeks, and we’ll definitely be going for a drink when it’s all over – then I’ll have to go and get a new pair of boots, because these ones will be worn out.”

Renton, no doubt heartened by the composed demeanour of his festival squad, himself has something of the air of an expectant father, proud, excited and apprehensive as his pride and joy approaches fruition.

He speaks of healthy ticket sales, positive public reaction and the “great degree of trust” between racecourse and construction team, and relishes the input of new catering boss Phil Roberts, formerly of Wimbledon’s All England Club, who is shaping up to the challenge of marshalling more than 3,000 staff and 250 chefs, and concerned only at the prospect of “the beer freezing”.

“And the loos,” adds Renton, another to have less than fond memories of a bitter 2013. The forecast says his treasured toilet facilities will not be reliant on a last-minute thaw to render them serviceable, but you can never be sure.

The Cheltenham Festival will this year go down to the wire, in terms of both the weather and the building project that will end shortly before Tuesday, March 10 and begin again after the runners have passed the post at the end of the Grand Annual.

For the four days in between, judge for yourself if the future of Cheltenham racecourse looks bright.