Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Turf's Faith Healers; Cheltenham Finds a Way to Soothe Pain

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Turf's Faith Healers; Cheltenham Finds a Way to Soothe Pain

Article excerpt

Byline: LYDIA HISLOP

SEVEN months ago, Cheltenham racecourse had by its management's own admission "upset virtually everybody".

Its dealing with the foot-andmouth crisis which at first caused the postponement and then scuppered the Cheltenham Festival came under severe criticism.

The list of dissatisfied customers was long and comprehensive.

Racecourse members, farmers nationwide, trainers, travel operators, local hotels, restaurants and other connected businesses all scomplained about a lack of communication. There was also the fear that the foot-and-mouth disease would have a greater long-term impact on racing than this sport's unenviable decision- makers thought at the time.

Yet the course - mecca for all National Hunt enthusiasts - is now as popular as ever.

After an absence of 274 days, barring an amateur hunter-chase meeting in May, racing resumed at Cheltenham last month to a rapturous reception.

More of the same is expected later this week for the Open 2001, which starts on Friday, and for the Festival next March, for which advance ticket sales are already outstripping this time last year.

"Last month's meeting was like the first day back at school," recalled the track's commericial manager Peter McNeile.

Racegoers agreed: more than 8,000 turned up for both days' racing, an increase of approaching 20 per cent.

Tote turnover and corporate business was also up, turning what is Cheltenham's most modest professional meeting into a raging success story. So just how was the faith kept?

McNeile said: "Although foot-andmouth disease did very little to Cheltenham's balance sheet in the short term - the National Hunt Festival having been comprehensively insured and our insurers having no issue with paying out - we did fear medium and long-term damage."

"The worry was that our customers would lose faith with an event that had lost its air of apparent invincibility. But it seems quite the reverse has happened.

"The appetite for racing at Cheltenham, and particularly the Festival, is stronger than ever. People seem more determined than ever to get here. …

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