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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 March, 2005, 18:56 GMT
Q&A: Edward Gilliespie
Cheltenham managing director Edward Gillespie
Cheltenham racecourse managing director Edward Gillespie
The first four-day Cheltenham Festival starts on Tuesday and racecourse managing director Edward Gillespie is in his 25th year masterminding the jump racing showpiece.

BBC racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght asked him about his time at the helm.

Gillespie reflected on the good and the bad, including triple winner Best Mate's late exit from this year's big race.


Q. So, 25 years then? Did you plan to stay this long?

A. No, not at all when you consider that none of the previous three managers of Cheltenham lasted longer than three years. I thought five would be quite a triumph.

Q.Do you remember your first day?

A. Very early on, I had to manage the aftermath of the previous Gold Cup which was 'won' by (the popular Irish steeplechaser) Tied Cottage, who later failed a dope test.

I remember that the owner, a lovely man called Anthony Robinson, had to go through this awful thing of giving the actual Gold Cup back to me.

He handed it over at Warwick races in a cardboard box. It was an early eye-opener of the highs and lows of this place.

Q. What were your initial objectives?

A. I wanted to make it a proper Festival, more than simply a race meeting, with trade stands and music, and all of the sideshows that you see now.

I needed to convince everybody that the integrity of the racing was safe, and that we should not be afraid of failure.

Q.Cheltenham is a famous success story, but have there been any failures?

A. Well, there have been some. The biggest was when a bus was deployed to take customers around the inside of the course to get a feel of what it was really like out there, 30 at a time.

We never rehearsed, and it turned out the gateway out onto the track wasn't wide enough to get the bus out, and it had to be abandoned before it started.

I am a great scavenger of good ideas from other events, and have found some work better than others.

Nowadays, it is great when sometimes I see one of ours stolen by somebody else. But if it is one of our dafter ones, I think to myself "I wouldn't if I were you."

Q. And the biggest success?

A. I think that it is keeping some of our more ancient things that work going, and not changing them for the sake of it. Cheltenham is modern and up-to-date in many, many ways, but we have kept much of the heritage as well.

Q. Even so, there have clearly been many changes since you arrived.

A. Yes, of course. Back in 1981, the Festival was already very good, but it was the racing industry's event rather than anybody else's.

The Grand National, and to an extent the Derby, were the people's events, but Cheltenham was largely for insiders.

But then came results like (trainer) Michael Dickinson's 1-2-3-4-5 home in the 1983 Gold Cup and Dawn Run winning for Ireland, a year or two later, lovely stories that meant we grabbed some of the romance that had been the Grand National's alone.

Norton's Coin coming up from South Wales to win at 100-1 (1990) sealed it. Suddenly we were really fashionable in the sporting world.

Q. Inevitably, not everybody likes change, so what has been the reaction to the four-day Festival?

A. A man wrote to me from Liverpool saying not to expect friendly weather during this year's Festival because what he called the Cotswold Gods would not smile on us because of our greed in making it four.

But generally the response has been good. The main thing is get the new races unrecognisable as new races, so they rub shoulders with their familiar cousins.

The entries look really strong, and, in my opinion, the meeting is not diluted at all. I am just hoping that the going does not become an issue, so no one can say we over-egged from that point of view.

Will there be a review at the end of it?

A. Yes, of course we will listen to customers' thoughts and concerns, and we will react if it's necessary.

Not everyone will like it, but I hope that we won't be judged just on one year. This is a developing programme.

Q. What about Best Mate's absence?

A. It is obviously very disappointing for all concerned, the whole team around the horse, and for all the fans.

There are plenty of people who cannot remember Cheltenham without him, so it will be a particular shock for them. On the other hand, it is good news that he is not injured as such.

Inevitably, it does take some of the shine off the big event, it must lessen it to an extent, but let's look forward to him coming back next year when there is a possibility that two Gold Cup winners will line up against each other. How good would that be?

Q. Moving on, one area which grates with some race goers is ticket touts. Do you have to allow them?

A. Yes. We don't sign up to the Parliamentary Act that allows policing of tickets, like football and rugby union.

I think that it would be impractical, as we sell tickets to individuals and coach parties alike.

I know that some people find touts unattractive, especially when they are so 'in your face', but on the whole I don't think they are too bad, and they help some who can't get tickets for one reason or another.

And, let's be honest, they are also a badge of honour for the event, showing how big we are now.

Q. In your 25 years at Cheltenham, who's been your hero?

A. Jonjo O'Neill, probably. As a brilliant jockey and then winning trainer here, I think that he personifies the spirit of jump racing.

Q. And your worst moment?

A. Foot-and-mouth disease, when the meeting was cancelled, in 2001, was challenging for us, and everyone else affected, many worse than us.

And the year when the roof of one stand collapsed, with people on it, at just the moment it started snowing heavily (1987). Because of the weather, we postponed the Gold Cup for an hour or so that year.

Q. And the best?

When it turned out no one was hurt, and then the news came through that the snow had halted in Tewkesbury (10 miles away), and we could finally run the big race, won by The Thinker.

Q. What was the funniest?

A. Well, it might not have been funny, but was. An Irish owner leant forward and kissed the Queen Mother after receiving a trophy. The police went mad because of the security implications, but she loved it, and was a much-loved figure here.

Q. Have you any last minute Festival rituals?

A. Yes, definitely. I have been mooching around making certain I am on good terms with the place, walking into car parks and bars, and virtually asking out loud whether they are okay.

The Japanese might call it Feng Shui, but it's not because there is no system to what I am doing.

Q. And your dream result this year?

A. I love a bit of theatre, so any one that will get people shouting and partying.

So how about a dead heat between Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop in Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase. Or is that too much to ask for?




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