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Cheltenham prepares for invasion of the Irish

By Victoria O’Hara

Cheltenham is a beautiful town less than 100 miles away from London and is described as an “architectural masterpiece”.

But once a year tens of thousands of Irishmen and women transform it from an English regency town into the mecca of horseracing during the National Hunt Festival.

According to locals, from March 16-19 it would be easy to mistake the Cotswold town for somewhere in Ireland.

“Instead of people enjoying good fun — the ‘craic is great’,” one bar manager joked.

It is a massive event — with St Patrick’s Day taking place right in the middle of the festival — with more than 400 horses taking part in 25 races over four days, competing for more than £3 million in prize money.

And at least 10,000 racegoers travel from Ireland for the annual ‘pilgrimage’.

But while the Irish love Cheltenham, is the feeling returned or left unrequited?

Martin Orme, general manager at the Thistle Cheltenham Hotel, said: “We welcome them with open arms, everybody just gets into the spirit of the event.

“It is a fantastic time for the hotel. About 90% of our bookings are from Ireland,” he said.

“Cheltenham is synonymous with the racing festival and the Irish are synonymous with that sport, so the two places have that link.”

Mr Orme said 10 months of planning go into preparing for the racing event.

“We change the operation to suit the clientele, who are mainly from Ireland — without a doubt.

“This year Frank Carson will be entertaining the guests, which should be great.

“The whole town, the whole region concentrates and focuses on this prestigious racing festival, and so many come from Ireland it is important to get it right.

“This is an absolutely crucial event for a hotel or business in the area.”

This is emphasised by Cheltenham tourism manager Angie Rowlands, who told the Belfast Telegraph that Irish racegoers give a very important boost to the town.

“In the 37 years that I've worked in tourism we always really look forward to welcoming the Irish racegoers to the National Hunt Festival, the highlight of the events calendar in Cheltenham.

“Their presence is a major boost to our economy, the town is buzzing all week and they know how to have the craic.” And Sarah Williams, manager at O’Neill’s Irish Pub, said they have to ensure extra supplies are ordered to quench Irish thirsts.

“We take on 20 extra staff for the festival, an extra 100 barrels of Guinness and 100 crates of Magners.

“The place is just wall-to-wall bunged. It’s not fun we are having, it is the craic that is great!”

B&B owner Veronica Ritchie says she is strict when it comes to the people who stay in her business.

“I do vet the guests, but the people I do get from Ireland, it has been an overall positive experience,” she said.

“When the races are on there are lots of Irish people here in Cheltenham, but it is a good atmosphere.”

To keep all the revellers in check the Gloucetershire Constabulary said there is a lot of work done alongside racecourse staff.

A spokesman said: “During last year’s event there were some minor incidents of anti-social behaviour in the town during the evenings, in the most part due to excessive consumption of alcohol, but on the whole people within the town and at the racecourse were in good spirits and enjoying the festivities.”

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