How to host the Greatest Show on Turf

Racing at Stratford gets underway on March 11 this year and, just like years past, a lot of work goes into organising each event, not least after the recent flooding affected our grandstands and track. From rebuilding fences or replacing carpets ruined by floodwater, plus the basic racing tasks to do with the runners and riders and liaising with transport officers, we have to cover a variety of bases each time we put on a show. The same goes for every racecourse up and down the country. From big to small venues, the amount of effort that goes into hosting a meet can be mind-blowing.

One of the best examples of how much goes into a racing event is the Cheltenham Festival. Known as the “greatest show on turf,” our opening fixture is a precursor to the annual festival, a day after we open our racing season. Why is it the greatest show on turf? Aside from hosting some of the sport’s best talent, Cheltenham is a spectacle. In 2023, a total of 68,500 people per day poured into Cheltenham Racecourse.

Many more would have attended, but the venue can only hold so many people, and numbers have been capped to improve the racegoer experience. Those who can’t attend in person watch on TV and online. In fact, almost as many people have a flutter on the Cheltenham Festival. Various prominent bookmaking firms estimated that, in 2023, around £1 billion was wagered during the festival. Around £1,000,000 was bet by punters at the course on each race, which means many millions were wagered online.

Such is the interest in Cheltenham that oddsmakers put up their odds way ahead of time. Ante-post markets for the 2024 Cheltenham Festival already have Galopin Des Champs as an even-money standout for the Gold Cup, and Constitution Hill as the strong 1/4 favourite in the Champion Hurdle. So, to say there’s a swell of anticipation and interest in Cheltenham is an understatement. 

What Goes into a Racing Event?

By these measures alone, it’s a spectacle that, rightly, dominates the British racing calendar. Creating the greatest show on turf doesn’t happen overnight. Here are just some of the things organisers will be working on ahead of the first race on March 12.

The Course

Grounds people have their work cut out in winter. Keeping the track in the best condition possible is the most important thing for any racecourse in attracting the endorsement of the trade professionals. Without something to race on, the whole event can’t happen. That’s why grounds people will be out tending to the track and, in turn, delivering reports on its condition (the going) weeks before the first race.

With three courses to manage (Old, New and Cross Country), there’s a substantial acreage to manage over the four days.

Runners, Riders & Officials

The quality of a race hinges on its participants. That doesn’t mean every horse has to be elite, it simply means that you need to have fair and competitive races. Organisers need to work in conjunction with the racing authority and stables to create the best races possible. Of course, the prestige of winning at Cheltenham, coupled with prize money topping £1 million per day, makes it easier to assemble the best runners, riders, and officials.

Time was when the roar greeted 20 runners in the Supreme Novices Hurdle but nowadays, even the top graded races face competition from alternative races. The phones will be hot in the Cheltenham office ensuring the fields fill well and fancied runners do not take easier options elsewhere.

Pic Steve Davies

Hospitality & Entertainment

Modern racing is more than what happens on the track. Racecourses have teams dedicated to hospitality and entertainment, and Cheltenham’s tented village is the largest at any sporting event in the UK bar none. People who attend any event, particularly the majors like Cheltenham, expect a day out. They want access to food, drink, and, in most situations, entertainment.

Many of the semi-permanent structures comprising the tented village remain in place from the autumn’s big fixture, but they are joined by more. An army of contractors from marquee suppliers, electricians, temporary kitchen suppliers and other facility providers, is on site throughout January and February building and preparing the structures before they are handed over to the racecourse.

Pic Steve Davies

Did you know over 250,000 pints of Ireland’s national drink – Guinness – are consumed during Cheltenham? Supplying bars with sufficient inventory to satisfy Gloucestershire’s thirsty punters is no small feat in itself.

Road & Rail

You can make sure everything inside the venue is set up for a great racing event, but all that effort will count for nothing if people can’t get in. Racecourses need to liaise with local traffic officers to ensure the road network can handle an influx of people. For events such as the Cheltenham Festival, the organisers also have to communicate with railway officials, as Cheltenham Station sees an influx of an extra 18,000 customers per day.

An increasingly popular route in is via the steam train that allows spectators to park at Toddington and take an old-fashioned steam locomotive to reach the racecourse station.

But for many living or staying in Cheltenham, the best form of transport is Shanks’ pony.

The Finished product

The finished product is always worth the effort. Cheltenham has become one of the most watched events in racing and the level of organisation is second to none. From the competitors to the post-race entertainment, nothing gets left to chance at these events, which is why British racing sets the global standard.

We’ve five weeks until the roar that greets that opening race at 1.30 on Tuesday March 12, and for many, that week will begin at Stratford the previous day.

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