In the chatter of a busy London bar last Saturday night, I sat with a pint of the velvet stuff and licked my English wounds.
The English were stuffed in the rugger and after having had our flag lowered at the Cheltenham National Hunt festival. On this year’s St Patrick’s Day, the men from the Emerald Isle certainly didn’t need champagne to sweeten their Guinness.
As I do each year in mid-March I made the pilgrimage to the Cotswolds to see the world’s finest steeplechasers take centre and front.
This was my 11th Festival and inevitably I succumbed to memory, comparison and optimism in the build-up. The day – or week if you are so lucky – is as much about tradition and friendship as it is the equine deities. However, unlike at Ascot, reverence to the sport unquestionably beats the lust for the nectar.
I graced the old place on the second day with glorious memories of last year’s two mile king – the now retired Sprinter Sacre – burnt in my memory; but it was spring and I was optimistic of seeing his heir apparent, Douvan, replicate the show.
Wednesday was played beneath a gin clear sky and three piece tweed jostled with red or mustard chinos for the best views. Well, that was just in the bar of the fabled Guinness tent!
On the whole, the Festival was perhaps not a vintage one although the races were all close – if memory serves me right there were four races won by a short nose, which I somehow seemed to be on the reverse of each time.
Despite fiscal wins and woes – the racing public respects the contest and celebrates each race with generous applause.
Of the championship races the Champion Hurdle winner, Buveur D’Air, stood out as a class act. Likewise, his classy assembled team: the munificent JP McManus, jockey Noel Fehily in the most wonderful autumn of his career, and – of course – the evergreen trainer Nicky Henderson. The Lambourn saddler (as some downmarket journalists like to describe him) has won more races at the Festival than anyone else – and one of the sport’s biggest characters to boot. However, behind his Wodehousian charm is one of the finest trainers of any generation.
There were other seductive moments on the track: the bruising Altior, the mad Un de Seax, the ever-quickening Sizing John and the heart-stopping yet brilliant Mite Bite to name but a few. It was, perhaps, four days of excellent undercards and close finishes without a Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston – Denman and Kauto Star – to be a Festival for the ages.
Poor me, poor me, pour me another Guinness. It was Cheltenham, it was horse racing; it was utterly awesome. There is no finer place on earth to be – while it may not have been in the stratospheres of yore it still took us to the moon.
One bumps into old friends, reconvenes the battle with bookies and – like this old cove – finds oneself arm in arm with an Irishman whilst waiting for a photo finish.
Cheltenham is full to the brim with the milk of human kindness. There is never a cross word – many curse words mind you – and unlike in London it is easy to speak one’s fellow man. Reams of laughter soar over the Cotswolds from the jolly, mainly, male congregation; all bowing at the altar of Equus.
A year to go ’till the next and the Irish eyes will continue to smile with memories of their finest Festival return but rest assured that Nichols, Henderson and Twiston-Davies will be laying in wait come next March.
Sadly another year to wait and devise a bulletproof betting scheme that will be ripped to shred the moment I enter the hallowed turf.