Football has the World Cup, “amateur” sports the Olympics, and wooly ball has Wimbledon. But, for a hardened National Hunt race fan there is only one sporting event; the Cheltenham festival every March. It is a juggernaut, combining sport of the highest calibre and an unbeatable Guinness-stained atmosphere.
There are two ways to watch the festival, neither of which involves being at work! The first is to stand in the shadow of Cleeve Hill (which I will be doing on Wednesday). The other is from the comfort of your sofa – it is possible to immerse oneself in everything Cheltenham from the moment you wake. I click on Alan Brazil’s Cheltenham breakfast on Talksport at 7am, buy the Racing Post, watch the morning line over breakfast and work out my bets; then I watch Channel 4, with the splendid John Inverdale’s radio coverage onto the kitchen radio, and hope I won’t lose too much money.
This year my festival began in earnest last Friday at the Sydney Arms. This lovely little pub in Chelsea, west London, hosted a Cheltenham preview with John McCririck, Barry Geraghty, Mick Fitzegerrald, and Tom ‘Pricewise’ Segal.
The louche, male-orientated, booze-soaked crowd were in the palm of these wise chaps hands; we hung on there every word as they gave us expert tips for the week. Racing is very open and friendly with its public and I was overjoyed to meet the panel after the show, especially the eccentric McCririck.
I love National Hunt racing, which has some races over hurdles and others over more demanding fences, and am just as engaged by the 2.10 at Fakenham on a Wednesday as The Grand National; but Cheltenham has an extra special aura about it.
This year will be particularly poignant because of the retirement of “The Champ” AP McCoy, the most successful National Hunt jockey ever and a great friend to us punters around the world. This year, more than ever, we will savour each time he flies past the post first.
He doesn’t have the greatest record at the festival; even so the odds of 10-1 that he will ride most winners in the 27 races of the four day festival seem pretty generous – it is definitely worth a small investment, particularly as trainers will be queuing up to give the great man a winner on his last hurrah.
This week I am looking forward to seeing if Faugheen is as good as we think he might be in today’s Champion Hurdle (the top race for hurdlers), the fascinating Queen Mother Chase (the most extraordinary combination of speed and athletic jumping over tough fences), discovering what bright coloured sweater the leading trainer Nicky Henderson is wearing, my first Guinness, discovering future stars in the Novice Races, and finally watching the energy sapping finish of the jumping championship, the Gold Cup.
1.30 L’ami serge
2.05 Un de Sceaux (NAP)
4.00 Annie Power
4.40 Sego Success
Accumulator – Douvan (1.30), Un de Sceaux (2.05), Faugheen (3.20), Annie Power (4.00)