Grapevine Stories

A day in the life of Ian Renton, Cheltenham Racecourse Director and an MD of the Jockey Club

Ian Renton gives us a great snapshot of what's life's like getting the show on the road for the Cheltenham Festival this year. This is Ian's last year as Director of Cheltenham Racecourse having been in the driving seat for the past 11 years.

With the combined role of Cheltenham Racecourse Director and an MD of the Jockey Club I have a huge variety in my week with no two days ever being the same; the downside of that is, at this time of year, there are not enough hours in the day to effectively manage both roles. However, I am immensely lucky to have an incredibly strong team at the racecourse who do all the hard work, and great colleagues around the Jockey Club Executive who are extremely understanding that my attention has to switch to more local matters at this time of year.

 The variety of the role is one of the reasons I gain so much enjoyment from what I do, and today is no different. As we lead up to The Festival and aim to sell the final tickets and hospitality packages, we ramp up the marketing and publicity. Our PR, media and marketing team work closely together to provide content of interest to our racegoers and potential racegoers and today sees us head down to Lambourn with the UK media visiting Nicky Henderson – ten days ago we were out in Ireland with Willie Mullins and Shark Hanlon.

 As an avid racegoer and horse lover myself, it is difficult to consider this morning's visit constitutes a proper day's work as I look forward to seeing some of Nicky's stable stars, not least Constitution Hill. But I get up at 5am in order to get through a lot of the Festival correspondence and other paperwork before getting in the car at 8.30 and heading down to Lambourn, not before giving extra food for the cats and throwing an overnight bag in the car as I am in London tonight.

The media visits to stables provide beneficial publicity for us but also allow the trainers to concentrate all the media visits into a few hours on one day rather than a different journalist appearing and needing attention every day of the week. However, we are all well aware of the stress that trainers are under at this time of year as they get their horses fit for The Festival knowing that even the most minor setback can jeopardise their running plans.

Driving down to Lambourn through a monsoon of biblical proportions, I ring one of my colleagues to discuss Plan B – ideally, we have lovely external photos of the key horses with a backdrop of blue sky and sunshine – there is going to be no chance of that today. On arrival at Lambourn, Nicky is in good form and ahead of the game with the press party and horses ready to be accommodated in the indoor school.

No real anxious moments with Constitution Hill not even close to being kicked by either Shishkin or Jonbonand none of the assorted press pack doing anything to annoy Nicky. A quick lunch with Nicky and Sophie and back on the road.

 Starting a lengthy meeting in the car with Lambourn’s notoriously poor reception is far from ideal but the situation improved when I reached the racecourse and can set up the now ubiquitous Teams video call in my office. Pre-COVID almost all our meetings were held face to face - with the arrival of Zoom and Teams, we saved ourselves a massive amount of time and expenditure in travelling around the country to meet our colleagues. However, the downside of Teams is one's day can end up with wall to wall meetings - to date my twice weekly 2-hour meetings with Volodmyr Zelenskyy and assorted public figures have remained largely undetected as I block out the diary in an attempt to retrieve a little time to spend with the team and work through some of the detailed planning for The Festival!

 I finish my meeting in time for the tour of the temporary facilities. As well as all our permanent buildings, we build an even greater area (over 40,000 sq.m. of temporary facilities comprising temporary seating, bars, restaurants, shopping and hospitality boxes. With new colleagues joining us each year, it is important that they get the opportunity to see what we offer in the various facilities and for everyone to understand any changes to the layout or what new restaurants and bars we have introduced for the latest Festival.

 The tour, which happens as soon as possible after the contractors hand over the completed structures is incredibly valuable - we pick up everyone's ideas and views as well as seeing any minor defects which can be addressed before we open for The Festival. This year, we are also accompanied by the BBC Sounds team enjoying a behind-the -scenes look.

 For those visiting the facilities for the first time, there is amazement at the ability to deliver such a high quality product in something temporary- last year we introduced Clare Smyth to Cheltenham with Core on Course replicating many of the dishes as well as some of the design of her 3 Michelin star restaurant in Notting Hill - this in addition to Chez Roux which will enjoy its tenth anniversary in 2025 where Michel Roux and his team look after more than 2,000 racegoers over the four days. 

 After the tour, I will spend a little time catching up with all the team trying to assist with any queries or concerns or to help resolve any outstanding issues, before driving to Oxford (I live a few miles outside Oxford) to catch a train for London as I have to attend a dinner this evening.

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