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A Racing Certainty: Cheltenham Festival brings in the cash

Dave Harvey | 15:30 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A hotel bar in Cheltenham, during raceweek

"The best way to make a small fortune here is to arrive with a large one!"

The eyes are twinkling, the voice is Irish: it must be Cheltenham Race Week.

But Frank is not drinking Guinness. He's on white wine, in a thoroughly chic bar at a newly revamped hotel overlooking the racecourse. Rooms here go from £250 a night to £1000 for "expansive" suites, which come - I kid you not - with a private dining room attached.

Racegoers at the Ellenborough Park Hotel, Cheltenham

I thought Ireland was bankrupt. The news desk had asked me to see how Cheltenham would cope without its annual injection of blarney and cash. Well, Frank and his friends have no intention of cutting back.

"It's the top sporting event of the year in Europe - in the world," they insist. "This is their golden week, they're entitled to charge for it -" He breaks off suddenly, looking at the race on the TV behind him, "How is that horse doing now then?!"

More laughter.

Ellenborough Park Hotel, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The manager estimates the cost of refurbishing Ellenborough Park at "around £15 million". It looks like money well spent. Graham Vass admits that filling his 62 rooms during race week "is pretty simple", but also claims to be full for several weeks to come. The world might be reeling from economic and natural disasters, but there are still enough super-rich to keep 120 cooks, chambermaids, valets and spa staff in work here.

There is another end of the market in Cheltenham, where a night's accommodation will cost you the price of a bottle of wine at Ellenborough Park.

The HQ of Cheltenham Racing Accommodation

This is the nerve centre of an extraordinary operation that finds rooms for a thousand punters in race week, at £50 a night.

Twelve years ago Liz Coe moved out of her own bedroom, sent her husband to a friend for the week and took in some racegoers. The idea caught on, and now she has five rooms booked all week in her modest family home. Hundreds of others are doing the same, earning valuable cash.

But the business has now gone mental. I spent two hours with Liz, on the night before the races, and her two phones literally never stopped.

Dermot was trying to find the house he was booked into. Jill had an extra room free if there were new clients. Random racegoers were calling, prompted by her website, desperate to find a room.

"Every year I try and get people to book early, book before Christmas, but they're like little boys," she smiles, "it's always the same. I call Ireland 'Last Minute dot com'!"

They say you can make money at the top of the market, and the at the bottom. Raceweek in Cheltenham is bearing that old rule out well. B&Bs are reporting a lot of people cutting their week to two nights. Restaurants have ordered less champagne.

But one way or another, there's still plenty of money coming racing this week.


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