Lets get one thing straight – I love Cheltenham. I love the theatre and the drama. I love the setting and the people. And I love the horses. How I have loved the horses over the years. This place thrives on its history, and no place has a history quite like Cheltenham. In fact, when I die, I have always fancied the idea of my ashes being scattered on this most hallowed of turf.
And yet (you knew there was an “and yet” coming), I didn’t love yesterday. The pinnacle of the sport, Gold Cup day at the Festival, left a slightly hollow and uncomfortable feeling.
It began brightly enough as I picked up Paul from the station. He was wearing a silly hat, so I got my silly hat out too. The first time you wear a flat cap in public you feel a little self-conscious, but after a few minutes you grow into it. By the end of the day it was second nature, and we certainly weren’t alone. Perhaps we’ve reached the age when we just don’t care, or even worse, reached the age when we find it somewhat stylish.
To promote the Jules Verne theme of my quest, I shall name Paul, in what is to be an extensive roster of companions on this shindig, my Passepar-one (do you see what I did there?). We have spent many fine days racing, and thousands more without in 25 years of friendship. I couldn’t have wished for a better man with which to commence my journey. Paul’s opening salvo was to savage a Ginsters sausage roll all over my freshly hoovered car. He has recently lost an alarming amount of weight on the 5:2 diet, but yesterday was clearly a day of feasting rather than fasting.
The drive to Cheltenham went spectacularly well. If this is the most popular day our sport has to offer it doesn’t show at 9.30am on the M4. As we shimmied along the Leckhampton road from the Air Balloon roundabout the weather could best be described as ‘dreech’. A low mist clung to the contours and the temperature gauge on the dashboard claimed a refreshing 3.5 degrees, a long way from the balmy conditions that had ushered in the Festival just 72 hours s earlier.
A quick pint in the Kemble, our traditional opening pitstop, was followed by the pilgrimage up to Prestbury Park. By the time we reached the roundabout before the racecourse entrance, the corralling began, and basically didn’t let up for five hours. Contrary to popular opinion, you can swing a cat within the environs of Cheltenham racecourse on Gold Cup day, but only if you are stood on the racecourse itself, and that wouldn’t be very sensible. Queues to place a bet were long, to go to the loo even longer, and to get a pint in under 15 minutes was a feat rarer than a novice chaser winning the Gold Cup. I felt unable to settle in any one place and no territory felt truly comfortable.
I suppose if I had backed several winners things may have seemed different (an undeniable truth about the rollercoaster of emotion at the races), but as always the racing was fiercely competitive and I didn’t get a sniff. My big fancy of the week, Beltor in the Triumph Hurdle, was anonymous to the point of me wondering if he was a non-runner.
We met up with Ivan, a friend and member at Cheltenham for longer than I had known him, which is a long time. He confirmed our malaise with proceedings by divulging that he was thinking of not coming next year. The problem is the sheer number of people trying to do many things in too short a time in too little space.
The bar under the new (admittedly, half-completed) grandstand had the charm of an airport departure lounge when the planes are delayed. We tried the Arkle Bar across the way and soon had to give up as a five-deep throng progressed agonisingly slowly. We watched the second race on a giant screen, perched on some plants overlooking the paddock. We weren’t alone – thousands of others were doing likewise, trying to find an island of calm in a maelstrom of humanity.
Finally the Gold Cup provided some respite, a scintillating performance by Coneygree in only his fourth run over fences that provoked cheers from those of us that hadn’t even backed the eight year old. But even his reception into the winners enclosure seemed muted, as if smothered by the torpid blanket that still shrouded Cleeve Hill from view.
We joined the slow-motion human train that departed the course and funnelled its way across beer-sticky concourses and mud-strewn side streets. Paul suggested that for the entrance fee he expected it to be easier to enjoy it. And he is right. Enjoyment of a day at the races is not just about winning. It is about having the time and the space to ponder, and talk, and watch, and digest, qualities that are so noticeably lacking from the frenetic Cheltenham on Gold Cup day. Killing the goose, Paul called it. There must come a time when the numbers decrease, either by natural selection or artificial constriction.
The day was saved by an excellent evening in The Strand, where a local and rather good band called Masterplan were belting out the crowd favourites. Kindred spirits danced and drank the night away, an eclectic patchwork mix of dresses and tweeds and jeans that racing seems to meld together like no other sport. I sensed that my Festival was finally beginning, miles from the racecourse and hours after the last race. It was still crowded, but it felt relaxed and fun.
When I die I would still like my ashes to be sprinkled at the final fence at Cheltenham, and by then I won’t mind the queues and the crowds, but I feel as though my scatterers will deserve an easier day to do it.