Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Cheltenham cheer boosts rural growth

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Cheltenham racecourse

Racegoers at Cheltenham
The adrenalin is flowing on race day at Cheltenham

The tension is palpable, eyes twitching as the punters switch between watching each other and eyeing the odds on the electronic boards.

Chaps dressed in tweed meticulously study their race cards, wet betting slips and cardboard cups littering the ground, as the crowd jostles to place bets with the bookmakers.

"John," cries one punter, raising a finger in the air to get the attention of his favourite bookie. "One. No, make that two, John. Two grand."

Race day at Cheltenham makes for a peculiar theatre, where audience and actors mix, everyone integral to the success of the overall performance.

"They are an eclectic bunch," grins Peter McNeil, director of sponsorship at the Cheltenham Racecourse as he surveys the scene.

"But they've got one thing in common; they love the sport."

Great audience

With some 230,000 racing fans expected to turn up to place bets totalling up to 500m at Cheltenham this week, there is no doubting the popularity of the annual four-day National Hunt Festival.

Bookmakers at Cheltenham
There's always a chance you could win an awful lot of money
Cheltenham Racecourse chairman Lord Vestey

Yet the carnival atmosphere in the run-up to Friday's Gold Cup belies the popularity of racing throughout the year.

Almost six million people go racing in the UK each year, with jump racing attracting about two million of them, according to Mr McNeil.

This makes horseracing "second only to football", he adds, not only in terms of attendances but sporting revenues too.

"There's an awful lot of people who make money from horseracing," says Mr McNeil.

Expensive hobby

At the end of each race, the crowds move in waves.

Many head for the bars to enjoy Cornish pasties and pints of beer, others congregate around the parade ring to study the horses and jockeys ahead of the next race.

"People get to love it," says Cheltenham Racecourse chairman Lord Vestey as he entertains guests in one of the more exclusive boxes.

Racehorse owner JP McManus
For me, it's a hobby
JP McManus, billionaire racehorse owner

"Our betting here is much more than the [rival race meeting] Royal Ascot," he adds.

"There's always a chance you could win an awful lot of money."

But if horseracing has always been about money, it is not always obvious who is making it.

This season, some 6m of prize money is set to be handed out to race winners at Cheltenham.

But even so, actual ownership of racehorses is far from lucrative, according to Jim Lewis, who owns three-times Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate.

"If you come to National Hunt racing and you want to make money, you're a fool," he says.

Racing industry

Proudly inspecting one of his horses after a race, Irish billionaire JP McManus is National Hunt racing's largest owner with more than 400 horses in training.

Jockey at Cheltenham
Jobs are created for those who look after, train and ride the horses

"For me, it's a hobby," he says. "For everyone in hunt chasing it's a hobby."

Much of racing's revenue stream comes from wealthy owners such as Mr Lewis and Mr McManus who are prepared to pay what it takes to reach the top, even if that means buying horses that can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The sale of corporate entertainment packages raises further funds; during the Festival's heyday some 8,000 people would sit down for lunch in the corporate entertainment enclosures, though this year the recession is expected to slash that number by about a tenth.

Companies also contribute through sponsorship of individual horses, of individual races or by advertising, which Lord Vestey insists is vital for the racecourse to continue to thrive.

"If we didn't have sponsors we'd be lost," he says.

Racegoers add to the revenue stream by paying for tickets that can cost up to 80, and a percentage of the betting income also contributes to what is increasingly beginning to look like a sector as much as a sport.

"Betting is an integral part of our business," says Mr McNeil.

Rural employer

Racing employs some 80,000 people in the UK, according to the 2008-09 edition of Jump Racing Focus, a recent report for investors commissioned by the horseracing community.

Racegoer at Cheltenham
Racegoers pay up to 80 for tickets

Half of them work in the betting industry, with a further 22,000 part-time and 18,000 full-time jobs.

"Wherever you have horses you'll need people to look after them," says Mr McManus.

Then there are breeders, the bloodstock agents, the jockeys and the people working at the racecourses."

Consequently, racing has emerged not only as "the largest sports employer along with football", the report says.

It is also a "significant rural employer", according to an earlier report titled "Economic impact of British racing" by Deloitte, the consultancy.

As an indication of its importance for rural Britain, Cheltenham Chamber of Commerce estimates that 34m was lost to the local economy when foot and mouth disease led to the cancellation of the Festival of 2001.

"It's a pretty big industry these days," observes racehorse trainer Alan King, who employs 65 people to look after and train 170 horses at Barbury Castle stables near Wroughton, Wiltshire.

And one with a future, according to the investors' report, which observes that "even allowing for the prevailing economic conditions, the sport is in rude health".

"But above all, it's a sport," interjects Mr McNeil. And for the next four days at least it will be one that offers welcome relief for racegoers from their everyday concerns.

Print Sponsor

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