TO Gloucestershire yesterday for the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, the favourite corporate entertainment jolly of the year for many a self-respecting racegoer.

Bucking the austere trend of recent years, this year’s Festival has already seen a roaring trade in City schmoozing, with the long list of companies taking private suites including HSBC, BlackRock, Neptune Investment Management, Jupiter, Oriel Securities and law firm Freshfields, in addition to the customary bookmakers’ boxes.

Speaking of the bookies, one firm breathing an audible sigh of relief yesterday was Ireland’s finest Paddy Power. Paddy offered money back on all losing bets during the first race if favourite Dunguib romped home the winner. Luckily for the bookie, the honours went to Menorah instead – beating Dunguib into third place and saving Paddy a cool £4.1m.

AMONG the City types making their way to the races yesterday was none other than former Louis Dreyfus commodities trader-turned-private dental care entrepreneur Sam Waley Cohen, riding Stravinsky Dance in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Though the horse pulled up after leading in the early stages of the race, it was a surprise to see Waley Cohen back in action. The keen amateur rider vowed to give up his hobby after coming fifth in the 2007 Grand National. But with four more rides to come this week, the man clearly can’t stay away.

Boot camp
ONE racing stalwart who invariably decamps from the City whenever a race meeting is underway is Andy Stewart, the founder of stockbroker Cenkos – who received more than his usual share of publicity yesterday after sponsoring the first race in aid of the charity Spinal Research.

The generous gesture came after his son Paul broke his back in a snowboarding accident in late 2008 and was told he’d never walk again. Fast forward to yesterday, and Stewart Jnr managed to get around the course grounds all day on his crutches and tells me he’s improving all the time.

Meanwhile, it was his dad who was having problems hopping about, since Stewart Snr broke his foot falling on the ice in January and is still having to make use of a boot brace and crutches.

“I was chatting to my good friend Michael O’Leary and he warned me that unless the boot comes off, he won’t give me the prize if my horse wins the Ryanair Chase on Thursday,” laughs Stewart, before adding mischievously: “He also said he wouldn’t let me on any of his flights – not that I’d be taking any of them anyway…”

That’ll put the cat among the pigeons.

Playing hard
And finally: a reminder that Cheltenham week isn’t the best week to release results.

Top of the grouch list yesterday was gaming firm Playtech, which reports prelims this morning – forcing well-oiled City leisure analysts to come all the way back from the Festival last night rather than staying on for a longer jolly.

Still, I hear Playtech would usually have scheduled its results for another time, were it not for chairman Roger Withers’ son getting married in the States next week. All is forgiven.