The Cheltenham Festival continues to grow in popularity, but that might not necessarily be a good thing. The festival now attracts a larger more varied crowd, and whilst that could be good for the sport in some aspects, it might hinder it in others. So, is the Cheltenham Festival experience as good as it looks?
Here’s my take on the ‘modern’ version!
A Racing Fans Dream
On 17th March, I was fortunate enough to tick it off my bucket list and attend Gold Cup day. It was a privilege to witness the roar of the crowd, the atmosphere, and the top-class racing in person. As a racing fan, I was in my element. From the word go, there was plenty going on. Live music and entertainment greeted us at the entrance with people of all ages enjoying the moment. Historic clips from previous festivals played on the big screens, and there was an air of excitement around the place. Everyone was in high spirits, laughing, joking, and enjoying a pint in the sun whilst studying the racing that was to come.
The venue itself was even bigger than it looked on TV. There were numerous bars and restaurants dotted around, as well as food stalls, bookmakers, and viewing areas. The 'Tattersalls Enclosure' had everything you could need, including a good view of the winning line and home straight. There was access to plenty of other areas, too, including the pre-parade ring and winner's enclosure, allowing you to get up close with the horses.
From the first race to the last, the atmosphere was electric. Like-minded people (for the most part) cheering their horses on and discussing the racing made for a very enjoyable day. The iconic Cheltenham roar as the first race got underway gave me goosebumps, as everything I’d seen on TV I was now experiencing in person. The racing was immense and the buzz about the place was extraordinary. As a racing fan, I can safely say that the experience will be hard to beat and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
The Boozy Bet Culture
The appeal of the festival, however, has changed in recent times. It became apparent that not everyone was there to enjoy the racing.
Whilst there was no doubting the quality of the racing on offer, the focus of many attendees seemed to be on alcohol. The festival is now more accessible and appeals much more to the masses than it used to. Gone are the days of it attracting only the wealthy and upper class. Now it is attended by people of all ages and walks of life. This is good as it attracts new people to the sport, which in turn, brings in a lot of money. There is a risk, however, of it becoming more like an 18-30’s holiday camp with the increased number of the younger generation visiting.
It seemed as though many of those visiting were more interested in drinking and gambling, rather than taking in an incredible day's racing. The increased advertising and emphasis on alcohol zones, such as the Guinness Village, brings with it the potential for problems. Whilst I didn’t encounter any trouble, I did notice numerous people being rowdy as the day progressed. Maintaining some of the original values and charm of the festival is important; else it could ruin the experience for racing fans like myself and drive the seasoned racegoers away.
All The Bells And Whistles
Myself and a friend visited the Tattersalls Enclosure, the perfect middle ground between the Club and Best Mate enclosures. At around £70-90 per ticket on Gold Cup day, it had everything. For the racing, there were multiple areas to stand which offered views of the winning line and home straight, as well as a heightened view from the Grandstand steps. When the horses weren't in shot, there were multiple big screens which allowed you to follow the action with clear commentary over the loudspeakers. Watching the racing at the business end was particularly thrilling.
The Tattersalls Enclosure also offered access to the pre-parade ring and winner’s enclosure, allowing you to get up close with the horses before and after the race. The celebrations after the race were particularly enjoyable, with everyone cheering and clapping as the horses returned. These areas seemed to attract those interested in the horses, which enhanced the experience somewhat.
In terms of facilities, there were plenty of food and drink outlets available, from restaurants to bars, and even snack stalls, meaning everyone was catered for. Betting was made easy through the multiple options available. There was a variety of Tote stalls, racecourse bookmakers, and on-site betting shops that made it easy for the less experienced punter, as well as easy access to newspapers and racecards to study form and other information. Racecards were priced at £5 and the minimum bet for on-course bookies was also £5.
To make it a unique experience, the enclosure featured a shopping village, where racegoers could purchase merchandise and browse a multitude of different trade stands. These included everything from a car garage to a jeweller to feather art. The enclosure had something for everyone and was spread over a large area.
Packed In Like Sardines
Despite the size of the enclosure, the sheer number of people visiting made it difficult to move around. When trying to get a spot near the winning line/on the home straight, it was easy to be crowded out, and access to the Grandstand steps was minimal. Whilst the areas you have access to make for good viewing, it was difficult to take advantage of them, so upgrading to the Club enclosure or a grandstand ticket would be beneficial. The Club enclosure allows access to all areas inside and outside of the Main Grandstand, allowing for much less restricted viewing. The crowds also made it difficult to move from one area to another, i.e. from the pre-parade ring to the viewing area for the race. This meant that, realistically, you had to stick to one area per race.
As for the food and drink facilities on offer, whilst there was a good variety, the prices were expensive. A pint of Guinness was priced at £7, a glass of wine £8.50, and spirits started at £6 per 25ml. As for the food, burgers were priced from £11 and loaded fries started at £9, to name a few. The venue is cashless, so make sure you’ve got plenty on your plastic!
When it came to drinking, the layout was a little awkward too. At one end of the enclosure was the Guinness village, where a large number congregated. The area supplied wasn’t really large enough, with people crammed in like sardines due to not being able to leave the area with a drink. The other end of the enclosure provided another space that allowed for drinking, but only up to a certain point. This meant an area where no drinks were allowed separated both drinking spaces, preventing access to a large portion of the enclosure until you’d finished. This wasn’t an issue, it just meant that large groups congregated in certain areas and access was restricted whenever you needed a drink.
The Guessing Game
There were three enclosures to choose from, with the ‘Best Mate’ enclosure being separate across the course. The ‘Tattersalls’ and ‘Club’ enclosures were very much intertwined, the only difference being that those with club passes could enter more of the facilities. It was a simple procedure to enter and clear signage highlighted areas that were available to those with club passes. There were several maps dotted around showing the layout of the enclosure, which made it easier to explore.
Despite this, they were a little confusing due to the sheer number of facilities and areas it was trying to display. For those with Tattersalls enclosure tickets like ourselves, it was a little tricky trying to decipher which areas we could and couldn’t access. Stewards were on hand, checking for club passes to allow entry, but for the most part, it was the sake of squeezing through the crowds to see what was where.
Eventually, though, we got into a bit of a routine, working out where to bet and stand so we didn't stray too far into the other areas.
The Long Goodbye
Much like when we were in the enclosure, arriving and exiting saw a lot of queueing. The local area saw some delays on the way in, as to be expected, but the signage for accessing the correct car park was clear. The staff were extremely helpful and ensured everyone was parked accordingly and the queues went down pretty swiftly. The car park itself (in our case, the green car park) was pretty muddy and messy due to the recent rain, which wasn’t ideal for the price paid, but there was alternative third-party parking offered just down the road with solid/hard flooring.
On the way out, it was much the same, with many people trying to exit at the same time. It took around 1 hour 15 mins from getting back to the car to exit the car park, before then having to queue on the roads too. The system for letting cars out was effective, however, seemed to take time to implement. There was also a significant lack of signage on the way out, at which point it was getting dark, making it difficult to find your way back to the correct place.
Overall, it was an incredible experience. The atmosphere throughout the day was electric and the racing on offer was second to none. Despite the enormous crowds and those more interested in drinking, the event was well run and the facilities on offer were plentiful. The prices, as expected, were quite high, so be prepared to spend a little whilst you’re there. I would recommend upgrading to a Club Enclosure or Grandstand ticket as it will be worth it for views of the racing, but the enclosure as a whole did the job perfectly. The parking situation wasn’t the best for what you pay (£30 for the green car park), but that is partially weather-depending. The staff were helpful, though, and the venue was easy to find and enter. For those with disabilities or that struggle to walk, it would be easy enough to navigate once inside the venue.
To improve upon what was an already wonderful experience, I would recommend improving the layouts inside and outside for queues and crowds, as well as trying to reduce the likelihood of drunkenness/rowdiness.
Providing a larger drinking area that isn’t separated would help to prevent overcrowding, as it would still be possible to have a “no drinking area” in places such as the pre-parade ring. This would help to thin out the crowds somewhat and make moving around inside the venue easier.
In terms of the queues outside the venue, this will be a problem regardless due to the high attendance. Creating an overflow, though, with more entrance and exit routes will help to keep the traffic flowing more freely and distribute the cars more effectively.
Regarding drinking, most are happy to just have the odd one or two and know when to stop. It's those who take it too far that ruin the experience for others. To combat this, a limit on the number of alcoholic drinks could be implemented. Using tokens, for example, which you receive on arrival, or a wristband, would help to limit people to a certain number of alcoholic drinks. A token must be provided, or the wristband scanned, every time you buy one. Once said amount is reached, you’re unable to purchase anymore. I believe this would help to combat the rowdiness somewhat and increase focus on the racing.
Overall, though, I cannot recommend the Cheltenham Festival enough. It is an experience you would struggle to get anywhere else, which can be enjoyed by all ages. Despite the slightly expensive food costs, it is an affordable day out, if done correctly, with some pre-planning.