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The silence before the storm

Emma Logan chats to Edward Gillespie, CEO of Cheltenham Racecourse. Photograph Yasmin Hussain.

Edward Gillespie is in an intriguing man. For someone who is so outwardly gregarious with many diverse interests he admits he is not the most sociable of people, he never entertains at home and is brilliant at switching off to complete silence.

How is it that one of Cheltenham’s most influential businessman can create the storm that hits our town, no more than this month, when over 230,000 people attend the ‘greatest spectacle on earth’, the Cheltenham Racing Festival?

Over a lovely bottle of Merlot and the famous fishcakes at the Montpellier Wine Bar, Edward gave me an insight into the man who most of us think is beholden only to jumps racing.

Firstly, the racecourse is a multi-million pound business which only has 17 days of horseracing per annum. Edward Gillespie manages a company which hosts 500 events each year, including conferences, concerts, funfairs, small dinners and one of the most lucrative parts of the business is hosting the weekly Sunday car boot sale.

The racecourse is well known for hosting charity events and these include the annual Race for Life run, which raises in excess of £280,000 for Cancer Research.

Edward Gillespie has no plans to stop here. Ever looking forward, there is a proposal for a 160 bedroom hotel to allow more non-local events to take place at the racecourse. In addition, discussions are underway to redevelop the main grandstand into one befitting the 21st Century and Cheltenham Town Football Club has expressed interest in moving its ground there. Though these plans are on hold due to the economic downturn, once the commercial opportunity is right, there will be major positive changes at the racecourse.

Then there is the racing and serious it is at Cheltenham. The Cheltenham Festival is regarded as the finest and most prestigious jumps event throughout the world. Though to some, jumps racing may be considered a sport confined to the UK, Ireland and France, its growing popularity, has seen the creation of the Crystal Cup which is a 6 Nations event taking place in France, Italy, Belgium, Czech Republic, Ireland, Cheltenham and with Sweden to join the series, it takes the sport into very exciting territories.

Edward Gillespie loves racing but sees very little of the jumps side out of Cheltenham. He is more likely to be found on the flat and attends the major events at Ascot, Goodwood and Epson each year. He says he has an emotional investment rather than financial one in horses and therefore only enjoys a small flutter occasionally.

What took me by surprise when talking with Edward Gillespie is his enormous energy for pursuits outside of horse racing. I know personally he has a keen interest in cricket and plays for the Gloucestershire Gypsies and enjoys attending the Brewin Dolphin Cheltenham Cricket Festival. He is often found on the terraces at Cheltenham Town Football Club (lower league football is a passion), or sitting in the stands, particularly supporting the back row of the Gloucester Rugby Team, where he knows he will lose his voice cheering for the Cherry & Whites.

He addresses the mind set of leading sportsmen and has been spending time with British athlete, James Brewer, watching the progress of this potential superstar as he prepares for the London Olympics. Edward understands how athletes can completely block out all noise out before competing, as he finds this is what happens to him on approaching race meetings.

Edward Gillespie is an avid walker and enjoys the yomp from his home in Gotherington, over Cleeve Hill into Cheltenham. It is a time when he can have the peace and quiet he yearns for. On arrival in town, he enjoys a lunch in Jack’s Café, a bottle of red at the Montpellier Wine Bar or dinner at the Royal Well Tavern or Peppers next to the Everyman theatre, which takes me onto what I feel is Edward’s real great love of his life; theatre. Having been on the Board of Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre for 15 years, Edward has also enjoyed working with the Bishop’s Cleeve Players and learnt all aspects of production from lighting to directing. He attends the theatre regularly, particularly in London where he spends much of his time, at his flat in Ealing.

Finally, back to Cheltenham’s great racing festival. Edward Gillespie’s favourite jockey, AP McCoy will be out in full force and though the Irish punters are still coming to Cheltenham, many are now only in a position to come for a day or two due to Ireland’s economic depression. Gold Cup day attracts 65,000 people with at least a third of these numbers made up by people from Gloucestershire and the adjacent counties. He feels there should be no rules at Cheltenham, dress as you want, behave as you want, just love the event.

For me, I find Edward Gillespie a man of integrity and enormous charm but please don’t bother him with small talk during festival week; he needs his peace to work!