Irish Cheltenham fans travel with hopes, dreams and winter woolies

Up to 15,000 Irish punters due at festival


Thousands of Irish racing fans are travelling to Cheltenham today, carrying a new set of hopes and dreams and, if they’ve any sense, a few pairs of thermal socks.

Temperatures are forecast to drop in the Cotswolds to as low as minus five degrees, which will make things decidedly chilly at windswept Prestbury Park, but more importantly it may disrupt travel plans.

Today is the busiest day for travel, with an estimated 7,000 Irish racegoers going to Cheltenham by air and sea. There was at least one bad omen yesterday with a Stena Line sailing from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead cancelled.

Cheltenham spokesman Andy Clifton said bookings from Ireland were on a par with last year and about 15,000 Irish people are expected in total, including those living in England.

Punters will arrive tomorrow to the unusual sight of frost prevention covers which were put in place over the weekend. A total of 65 acres, or the equivalent of 45 football pitches, is now under sheeting.

It will be removed in two stages, with races held on the Old and New courses on the first two days and the second two days respectively.

As for the protection of spectators, Mr Clifton sagely remarked: “I would advise anyone against wearing their summer blazers on Tuesday.”

The cold spell is forecast to last through to Thursday, and Clerk of the course Simon Claisse noted that the ground was “unlikely to dry out much under the covers. It is soft everywhere”.

Bookmakers are offering odds on the festival being disrupted by the weather, and it is now a 2/1 shot - down from 4/1 - that any day’s racing will be subject to a shower of snow.

Irish trainers will be hoping for an improvement on last year’s modest tally of five winners.

The tone may be set by tomorrow's opening race the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle when one of the Irish festival favourites Jezki, trained by Jessica Harrington, runs.

Animal welfare activists are also closely watching the festival after three horses were killed on the opening day last year, and two others over the remaining three days.