A Wonderful Day at the Races

WORDS BY Katie Jarvis

Racing TV presenter Frankie Foster grew up in Cheltenham, a town world-famous for its superb racecourse.

Home to jump racing, the racecourse also hosts annual Cheltenham Festival, attracting tens of thousands of racing fans for four days of peak excitement, culminating in Gold Cup day.

So how do you get the best out of a day at Cheltenham Races? What to wear? How to pick a winner (as well as a dinner)?

We asked the expert.

Frankie, you grew up in Cheltenham – home of jump racing and the world-famous Gold Cup steeplechase. Were horses a big part of your childhood?

There are plenty of children in Cheltenham that grow up with racing. Or they’ll have horses or go to Pony Club. But that definitely wasn’t the case for me!

I grew up in a small area of Cheltenham called Benhall. My early years were dominated by sport. Me and my mates would go and knock on each other’s doors and either take a bike or a football to the park. I was football mad.

Obviously, being from Cheltenham, you know about the races; and, inevitably, somebody you know will have horses; but my horseracing experience only started when I went for a fun day out, aged 16, with some friends - and absolutely loved it!

Did it surprise you how much you enjoyed it?

I started at the top because I went to Cheltenham Gold Cup [annually in March], arguably the biggest sporting event – especially in racing – in the UK. It’s like going to the World Cup! I knew it was something people went to, got dressed up for, and watched the racing. But I didn’t know how big it was; how exciting; how many people would be there; how important it was. Everything was bigger-scale and more fun than I expected.

Hence why that was the start of a very long love for racing that I’m still diving deeper and deeper into every year.

You mention people dressing up. What sorts of outfits do racegoers wear?

So this has been a big change recently - and a positive one for racing - in that the Jockey Club [the UK’s largest commercial horse-racing organisation, owner of Cheltenham Racecourse] have relaxed dress codes. There’s no official dress code to go racing now, which is brilliant: you can be comfortable in whatever you want. Plenty of people still will dress up, which I think is a fun part of the day. But there’s no pressure.

What about you? You always look ‘the part’!

I really like to dress up smart. If you can make it fun and an opportunity to dress up in something you might not normally get to wear, it adds to the day. I’ve done a lot of work with House of Cavani, where the suits are off the shelf so you haven’t got to worry about a tailor and too much effort. On colder days, I’m usually in a suit with overcoat and maybe a flat cap.

And footwear?

I might match some brogues to a suit; or, if an overcoat and chinos, maybe some boots. I’ve made the mistake of wearing brand spanking-new shiny shoes for a full day at Cheltenham and coming home with terrible blisters.

You can put some miles in. A lot of people don’t realise how much there is to do at a racecourse. There’s a Pre-Parade Ring [where horses warm up and are saddled, around half an hour before their race], a Parade Ring [where racegoers can cast an eye over likely winners]; there are food stalls, bars, shopping villages, and activities for kids.

What are the ‘must-dos’ in your opinion?

When I first went, if I’m being completely honest, I went from one bar to the track; back to the same bar to the track; and I really did not see much of the racecourse at all. Don’t get me wrong – we had plenty of great days - but there’s a lot more the racecourse can offer.

I find the closer you can get to horses, jockeys, trainers - see their faces; look at your racecard and know which horse on the racecard is the one you’re looking at in the Parade Ring - the more you will enjoy it. [Racecards are available via the Jockey App on the morning of every race day: thejockeyclub.co.uk]

So how do you make the most of a visit to the Parade Ring?

Go to the Parade Ring before a race. On your racecard, you might see ‘Honeysuckle’, for example. Your racecard will show you what colour the jockey is wearing and what number the horse is. You can walk round; have a look at the horse. As you watch the race finish, and maybe see that horse finishing well, you’ll have a bit more of a connection. When they come back into the Winners’ Enclosure [where successful horses are reunited with owners], you’ll hear them get a cheer.

The great thing about jump racing is that the same horses come back year after year. So, if you are a repeat racegoer, you’re going to see those same horses and jockeys over and over.

Frankie, you’re also an entrepreneur and fitness instructor. Can you translate your knowledge of peak form into winners?

To some degree. And that’s what some people will do in the Parade Ring, where you can get pretty close to the horses. Some might have a bit more muscle; some might look a bit more lean. If we say a horse looks really ‘fit’, it means you can see the muscle definition; the skin’s tight; they look ready to perform.

Jockeys are slightly different because there’s a mix of athleticism and skill. You get some like Tom Marquand out on his bike, doing his ice baths, in the gym: he takes a real athletic approach. Others might be a bit more old-school in their training regime. Tom and Holly Marquand are both flat jockeys [races without obstacles] so you won’t see them at Cheltenham; but they’re married, both very into their fitness and sport science, and take quite a modern approach.

With that fitness comes talent, which is why I don’t think you can look at a jockey and say, ’He’s going to ride a good race’, in the way that you certainly can with a horse.

Are you good at picking winners?

Try to! I remember picking The Mighty Don at Cheltenham because my granddad was called Don - and the horse won 18-1! Do you need to be an expert? Well, I picked a horse because he had the same name as my granddad, and I had great fun cheering him home.

For more of an educated approach, you can look up form [how a horse has done in previous races].

How many hours’ training does a jockey put in?

They’re probably some of the hardest-working athletes we have. They’ll be out riding horses for trainers at 5 or 6 in the morning. They will ride in five or six races on one day; travel to another part of the country and do that on repeat; back to back. Across weekends, day after day, big festivals, small festivals.

They have to keep on top of their weight; they have to stay fit and injury-free. They really have to live the life of a jockey - you can’t just be a jockey on Saturday mornings, if you want to be on top.

And they’re responsible for another living being…

Not only do jockeys have to be an athlete but they have to communicate with a 500k animal doing speeds of 30-plus miles an hour. Without that emotional connection, trust me, racing wouldn’t happen: a horse is a lot bigger and stronger than we are.

Are children welcome at Cheltenham?

Cheltenham puts on loads for kids; under 18s get in to all race days for free (excluding the Festival). On dedicated family fun days, there may be a bouncy castle down one end; there might be a jockey teaching them how to ride on an Equicizer. Quite a lot of racecourses will have an equine ambassador – a retired racehorse or a pony - on site. Kids can go and stroke them, see how gentle these animals are.

A lot of the kids also enjoy putting something smart on. That might sound contradictory to some parents: ‘My child never wants to put school uniform on!’ But in that setting, when they get to wear something different, they can pretend to be a mini grown-up for the day.

What about the opportunites to buy (or buy into) your own racehorse?

Nowadays, it’s not just sole ownership, or three or four mates getting together to buy a horse: there are lots of options. Syndicates; club options, where you essentially own for a season so it’s like renting a horse. That means you get to go racing and, in many cases, be in the Parade Ring and have an owner’s experience for a fraction of the price. You’re not buying a racehorse to turn over profit; you’re buying it for entertainment and enjoyment.

And you don’t have to be a racing enthusiast to buy a share in a horse. Some people will even do it as a way to get involved in the sport to start with. A racecourse is one of the best places to go as a newcomer. Any regular racegoer will not stop wanting to tell you more about racing.

Name your favourite VIP experiences…

You can buy a bog-standard ticket and do your own thing - right up to the Panoramic Restaurant and Michelin-starred chefs. At Cheltenham, we’re in this natural dip with all the hills around us; the panoramic restaurant, with its huge glass front, has incredible views. You see the race finish; you also have the race on your screens at the table where you eat. There’s food and drink in there all day.

There are loads of pop-up chefs who come in specifically for the Festival; plenty of tents where you can buy a ticket to a certain hospitality host.

These are things it’s a good idea to organise early. Spend a bit more money; get dressed up; put it in the calendar and know that you’re going for a great day out.

So Cotswold Cloche is now giving you a time machine, Frankie. (Our pleasure.) Is there one past jockey or racehorse you’d like to meet, pat (just the horse!), and ask questions of?

I’d love to have watched Red Rum in his era… [1965-95; Irish champion horse]. It’s also funny because I’ve got to know [the jockeys] Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy. I’d just started watching racing when they were riding but I missed their prime.

What I’d like to do with a time machine is to change a result. Defi Du Seuil was the horse that got a lot of us into racing. Six or seven of us lads that grew up together in Cheltenham went to the Festival and all had a bet on him in the Triumph Hurdle… and he won! [2017]

He became our friendship group’s horse to follow. Every time he’d race at Cheltenham, we’d go and watch him. He turned out to be a very nice horse.

[One year] he’s in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham Festival when the two horses ahead of him are both pulled out. In simple terms, it means Defi Du Seuil should win the race.

So we’re in hospitality where they know about [our connection with] Defi Du Seuil. And one of the staff takes us down to see him being saddled up in the Pre-Parade Ring. We speak to the trainer before the race; we then go into the Parade Ring, and it’s like a dream come true. This horse that we’d followed from his début win at Cheltenham in the Triumph has now got the best-ever chance to win a championship race…

And he didn’t win!

Right… But come on, Frankie! If you could rewind, we rather think you’d be busy placing a fortune on a definite cert.

Now that’s very true!

For all season dates at Cheltenham, and to buy tickets, visit https://www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/cheltenham/events-tickets/)

You can find out more information about the racecourse at https://www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/cheltenham