One of the biggest networking events on the calendar is under starter's orders this morning - with runners and riders from all sectors of the business community lining up to take part.

The Cheltenham Festival - over four days - is set to attract 230,000 spectators and gate receipts running into many millions.

Up to 9,500 corporate lunches a day will be served throughout the event which will attract thousands of visitors from the Midlands.

And while the winners win and the losers lose, huge numbers of deals will be struck as the business community feverishly forges links.

Cheltenham's director of sponsorship Peter McNeile said: "The festival is a very strong brand and horse racing in general is a tremendous networking opportunity.

"The nature of the sport means there are breaks in the action which means people can talk and debate and reach a meeting of minds."

Cheltenham attracts some of the most powerful figures in the business community across the UK, Ireland and internationally.

One of the sponsors is Staffordshire-based JCB.

Mr McNeile said the Rocester business gained in three ways.

Firstly chairman Sir Anthony Bamford - a keen horse racing fan - would get the opportunity to meet and talk to friends, who will involve a large number of key figures in industry.

Secondly, his upper to middle management team would gain a chance to meet and greet and gain contacts.

And thirdly the brand would be placed before a huge range of potential customers - including the travelling contingent from Ireland.

Chris Wright, worldwide brand and marketing director, said: "Cheltenham has proved a powerful sponsorship vehicle for JCB, reinforcing our world class brand.

"The appeal of jump racing has a strong crossover with our customer base."

He said that not only was the business able to entertain existing customers in an exclusive hospitality environment, but "our strong brand presence at the event also broadens the appeal of JCB to potential customers everywhere".

Mr McNeille said: "The support of our sponsors is invaluable and we are delighted to see so much investment going back into our local community as a result."

The JCB Triumph Hurdle Race is staged on Friday.

Race sponsor Ryanair is supplying 16 additional flights into Birmingham International, East Midlands and Bristol as race fans and the business community surge in from Ireland.

Caterers will serve 10,000 bottles of Champagne, 25,000 bottles of wine, 200,000 bottles of beer and lager and 175,000 pints of Guinness.

A "Cheltenham village" of 50 stands will offer a range of goods from rocking horses to Wellington boots.

In 2004, it was estimated that the event generated as much as £40 million.