When I go to heaven, or wherever they send me, I shall thank those folks in charge for a number of things. I shall thank them for flowers, whisky, close friends, cheese in all its infinite varieties, Sunsets and Sidmouth. And my wife, of course, and my sprawling family in Leicestershire. All so important. But I shall also thank them for four days in March. It means little in the great scheme of things, who really cares if one four legged animal can beat another, but horseracing has always been a glorious irrelevancy. And Prestbury Park, Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, is the most glorious of them all. I love theatre, it is an abiding passion, but I love horseracing more. I once shocked my wife when, asked to choose between the two, I opted for the horses. My logic was that I could combine both loves. Theatre is theatre. Horseracing is both. Drama and tragedy and, occasionally, a swagger to the payout window.
And Cheltenham in March is the top of this particular tree by miles. It is Christmas and Easter, National Theatre and Oscars, Olympics and Cup finals. All rolled into one. Twenty seven races over four days and all of the cream of racing are there. Big owners and trainers dream of riches, the small fry just shake their heads in disbelief at merely having a horse considered talented enough to run on that (cliché) hallowed turf. To have a small stable nag good enough to grace Cheltenham in March is a bit like having Giggleswick Town in the last sixteen of the FA Cup. You probably ain’t going to win but, by God, it will be fun. And that tantalising fun arrived, for me, today. My annual posh and expensive book which analyses the best of those twenty seven races in depth. If the clever minds which dissect the respective merits of Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle contenders were in banks or the treasury I reckon that this afflicted country would be in a better shape. Well, maybe no. But it would be a lot more fun.
I used to go every year. Mainly because of my job but, in retirement, for the unalloyed pleasure. These days I prefer to spend the morning pouring over the form and chatting to my brother. Decisions made I trot off to the bookies and then curl up with Channel Four. I get everything. Stimulation, social interaction, healthy walks, and financial calculation. And pure theatre. I can’t understand why HMG don’t make it compulsory. It ticks all the oldie boxes in our fight against senile dementia. Must be the numerous fags and alcohol, not too much of the latter, which links political with incorrect. Can’t have pensioners enjoying themselves. They should be worrying about their rubbish bins and sundry wars.
I have always been of the view that life is so much more bearable if you can switch off and bury yourself in what might win the 3.30 at Kempton Park. Cheltenham, in March, is that prosaic activity writ large. It gets so much publicity it is almost respectable. The big boys look nailed on this year given the lack of new kids on the block. Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, Sizing Europe in the Queen Mother, Big Bucks in the World Hurdle, and Long Run in the Gold Cup. The accumulator is about 20/1 if you fancy a punt. Oscar Whisky might give BB a race in the World Hurdle, Big Zeb is a place for the QM, and Kauto Star, twice a winner, will evoke many tears if he gets the biggest one on Friday. But, bar falls, little else will match them.
Being greedy I have backed Wierd Al at 20/1 for the Gold Cup on Friday and not ready to dismiss Minsk in the Triumph on the same day. Might be a backable price. But win or lose, and the numerous handicaps wait my studying, I shall love it. I pay my ticket and get four days of fantastic theatre. And unlike visits to Stratford or the Barbican I sometimes get my money back. That never happens in the West End, even with the biggest turkeys. Horses are not actors. They occasionally pay the gas bill. The long march starts here.
Cheltenham National Hunt Festival - Tues 13th Mar to Fri 16th Mar (Channel Four)