Cheltenham not just about the drinking – there is horse racing too

Incidents at last year’s meeting trigger measures to reduce uncouth behaviour

By the time the first race got under way, many hundreds of pints had already been knocked back and a fair few punters were distinctly merry. As the day wore on, bar floors became sticky with spilled alcohol, tills heaved with beer money and frazzled staff were working hard to clear wine and champagne empties.

"I don't see much difference to previous years to be honest," said Jimmy Jones, a businessman who usually takes a cheeky day off to enjoy a bet with his mates at the Cheltenham Festival.

“The Jockey Club has got to be seen to be doing something after what happened last year, but you’re going to have to do something much more radical if you really want to cut down on drinking. It hasn’t stopped us getting stuck in so far.”

What happened in 2016 was that a couple of footballers and reality TV stars were spotted acting in a manner that fell short of the standards expected. The footballers were spotted urinating into a pint glass, the contents of which were poured on to racegoers beneath their balcony. The female reality stars were banned after exposing themselves to photographers.


Upset by the images, the grand old Jockey Club (est 1750), which owns Cheltenham racecourse and runs the four-day festival of jump racing, introduced a series of measures designed to discourage uncouth behaviour.

It ordered staff at its 26 public bars to limit the number of drinks a punter can buy in one visit to four pints or four shots of spirits, or two bottles of wine or champagne.

Corporate hospitality staff have been instructed to hold back on the free booze after the last race has started and the main after-racing bar, the Final Flight, now shuts at 7.30pm rather than 8pm.

The Jockey Club PR team also did its bit. Usually it releases statistics on how many pints of Guinness and bottles of wine were drunk at the previous year’s festival – 265,000 and 120,000 respectively in 2015. This year it kept mum.


Jockey Club officials insisted they did not want to spoil anyone's enjoyment. Ian Renton, the club's regional director, said antisocial drinking was "virtually no problem at all".

“We want to tell people that if you come here just to drink too much you’re not welcome,” he said.

So, would drinking be more modest this year? Gates and bars opened on Tuesday at 10.30am. Two minutes later, the first pints were pulled in the so-called Guinness village. The champagne corks started popping at about the same time in the hospitality tents.

“It is a bit of a challenge,” said ‘Big Dave’ Elliott, who had met six friends. “Making sure everyone is buying their round is also logistically tricky. I think for tomorrow we’ll sort out a kitty so nobody is getting away with it.” With Guinness at £5.20 (€5.90) a pint, such attention to detail was important.

Not all were cheerful about the measures. "It's daft isn't it?" said Su Reader, who was over from Ireland with a group of friends. "I think the Jockey Club is treating us like children. It's not going to stop any drinking. It just makes going to the bar a bit less convenient. The great thing about Cheltenham is the sense of freedom here. Lords and ladies rub shoulders with ordinary people like me and we're all having a laugh together."

The festival continues to grow, with more than 260,000 visitors expected over the four days, and it is worth more than £100 million (€114 million) to the Gloucestershire economy. Such scale, however, causes problems.

For the first time this year council officers have the power to issue on-the-spot fines to anybody who refuses to stop drinking in designated areas of the town. Police will be dropping in on pubs, bars and clubs to make sure very drunk people are not being served.

Nick Rogers, who has been coming to the festival with a group of friends since 1972 when he was 18, suggested the problem was a change in the clientele.

“I have nothing against drinking. It and Cheltenham sort of go together, and when we were younger we used to drink a fair amount. What has changed is who is going to the races.

Early years

“In our early years, the people there were all interested in the racing, they respected what was happening on the course, the risks that the jockeys and the horses took. Drinking and enjoying the day with your friends was important but the primary purpose of virtually everyone being there was the racing.

“Nowadays a significant number of people go because it’s an ‘event’ and for them it seems as though it’s the racing that’s incidental to the drinking and socialising.”

The phenomenon was not new, he said. "I had a letter printed in the Racing Post in the mid-90s in response to the then Cheltenham manager saying how successful Gold Cup day had been, pointing out that from where I'd been it wasn't so good, with people urinating and vomiting in public, seeing the police move in, in force, to stop a brawl in a beer tent, and someone getting a kicking in a fight.

“If you were cynical you could say that the problem’s only being addressed now because of the fuss last year over the footballers and glamour models.

“Ultimately, I suppose, they have to decide how much profit they’re prepared to lose by cutting down on sales of alcohol and switching the emphasis back on horse racing.” Guardian service