‘Nothing short of disastrous’: Cheltenham fears losing the Irish after Brexit
Hoteliers and retailers worry what Brexit might mean for jump racing’s biggest festival
Racegoers at Cheltenham Racecourse. One local hotel orders up to 20 times its usual supply of kegs for the week of the festival. Photograph: Glyn Kirk / AFP/Getty Images
It’s after 11pm. Erol Uray appears through a heaving crowd of unsteady, sweaty, inebriated Irish punters in the Queen’s Hotel on the Promenade in Cheltenham, heading for a quieter spot in the hope of being heard.
On the way, he walks past a green-looking, elderly gentleman propped up on a chair outside the toilet. On his lap, he is holding a champagne ice bucket, partly filled with vomit. Welcome to Cheltenham’s bacchanalian racing nights.
“It is all Irish, all Irish,” said Uray, the general manager of The Queens, of his guests during the four-day highlight of National Hunt racing’s calendar, the largest gathering of British and Irish race punters.
Many in the bar are regulars, booking one of the hotel’s 84 rooms for next year as they check out. The Queens knows its Irish clientele. Outside, the building is lit up in green to mark the festival’s “St Patrick’s Thursday.”
Rooms are turned into extra bars on the ground floor. Music is booked for each night: “They are drinking a lot but they are fun, they enjoy themselves; we try to put on a show,” says Uray, tolerantly.
Nobody in the Gloucestershire town knows the Brexit they will get, even if locals believe that too much is at stake to risk Cheltenham’s fabled Irish connections
Well, he might. The Queens takes in more in the week of Cheltenham than for the whole of December, the next busiest period. Uray says the hotel orders up to 20 times its usual supply of kegs for the week.
“It is not just the busiest week for the hotel, but for Cheltenham. Everyone gears up,” said Uray. Last year, the racing had a record attendance of 262,637 over four days, including an all-time high of 66,384 on “St Patrick’s Thursday.”
In all, it is worth more than £100 million (€117 million) to the local Gloucestershire economy. Betting tops more than €1 billion, the industry estimates. Nearly 6,000 people are employed at the festival, including 350 chefs.
This year, however, is the last year before Brexit, if Brexit happens on time. Nobody in the Gloucestershire town knows the Brexit they will get, even if locals believe that too much is at stake to risk Cheltenham’s fabled Irish connections.
A disorderly exit, however, threatens to end the EU-supported tripartite Ireland/UK/France agreement that means horses, lorries and boxes can drive straight off ferries without veterinary inspections or health checks.
Restrictions would definitely have a big effect, says Uray: “If it happens, we have to have a back-up plan.”
The Queens is not alone. Other businesses rely heavily on the welcome annual invasion of the Irish.
“They come with a bag of cash and they spend what’s in the bag,” says Luc Morel, general manager of The Ivy restaurant, in the upmarket Montpellier end of the town. The Irish are “big business,” he says.
Each night, The Ivy covers between 280 and 320 diners during race week. More than 200 come for breakfast. Average spending in the restaurant rises from £40 to £65 during the week when the Irish are in town.
“We know how to entertain the Irish. Even us here, we don’t normally do Guinness but we bring in draught Guinness just for this week,” said Morel, who believes there is too much riding on the racing festival for it to be affected by Brexit.
'If they can’t get the Irish horses over, the Irish won’t follow them. That would be a worry. It would be close to 50 per cent of our business'
“It is such a big week for the Irish that they will still come. It is important that we keep that connection with the Irish,” he said. However, not everyone in Cheltenham is as confident that everything will be alright on the night.
A few streets away, a stretch limousine is outside The Beehive pub. Inside, pints are being served to steel punters for a day of racing. Mostly Irish accents can be heard.
“We have had long-standing Irish guys coming to us for the past 20, 25, 30 years,” says manager Richard Shakeshaft. “If they can’t get the Irish horses over, the Irish won’t follow them. That would be a worry. It would be close to 50 per cent of our business.”
The pub’s weekly revenue soars five or six-fold during the festival. Three Dubliners from the “Cheltenham Torphy” group of friends (named after an engraver’s mistake) stand at the bar. They have been coming here for 21 years.
This year, 27 of the Torphy group travelled, and they spend but decline to say how much.
'Brexit won’t affect it at all for the simple reason that Ireland is our closest neighbour'
“Don’t put in the paper; my missus will read it,” says one of the group David Caulfield, laughing, “If the Irish don’t come, the festival is finished.”
“There is too much money on the line,” says his friend Martin Kilbride, optimistic that Brexit-related checks will not halt the March exodus of Irish jump horses. “There will be some way the horses will come.”
Ireland’s love-affair with Cheltenham, means, arguably, that it is the English town that knows the Irish best. Locals certainly think so. “We’d miss them; we love the Irish,” said local woman Lynn Lewis, stopping on the Promenade.
“I don’t think Brexit will stop the Irish from coming,” said Annie Craig, who has lived near the racecourse since 1970, “We love having them. You might see the odd one who has had a pint but they are never a bother.”
Bryan Heckley, a florist with a stall on the Promenade, has lived here since 1982. Revenues would plummet if the Irish stopped coming: “Brexit won’t affect it at all for the simple reason that Ireland is our closest neighbour,” he said.
However, Cork-born jockey Jonathan Burke (23), who lives an hour away in West Berkshire, fears that post-Brexit travel restrictions could discourage small-time Irish trainers from bringing long-odds contenders.
“That would take away the magic story of the man with the 20 horses having his winner at Cheltenham. That might be just taken away, which would be very sad,” says Burke, who has ridden the 2011 Cheltenham Queen Mother Champion Chase Sizing Europe and the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup-winner Sizing John.
'It is essential Cheltenham has the Irish and they are able to come here easily. Travelling is bad enough as it is'
Standing in the parade ring, Graham Thorner – the English former champion jump jockey who rode 650 winners, including Well To Do in the 1972 Grand National – says fewer Irish at Cheltenham would be “nothing short of disastrous”.
“All of us love the Irish because of the craic and because they’re great horsemen,” he said. Borders and bureaucracy would affect not just racing, but breeding, too: “How would we get mares to your top stallions?”
Walking towards Prestbury Park’s weighing room, Bernard Parkin stops to chat. The former racecourse photographer is attending his 85th festival; he first attended as a four-year-old and turns 90 later this year.
Born in Cheltenham, he lived “by the water jump” as a teenager. Today, Parkin is old enough to remember the start of Cheltenham’s Anglo-Irish rivalry when legendary Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien began bringing horses in the late 1940s.
“It is essential Cheltenham has the Irish and they are able to come here easily. Travelling is bad enough as it is,” says Parkin. He voted Leave in 2016. Today, he is still figuring out whether he was right, or whether he would vote the same again.
Parking worries that if fewer Irish people came to the festival, it would change everything: “I don’t want anything to interfere with the great fun and excitement that we all have together here. It would lack the spark. The whole thing is a battle between Ireland and England.”