Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Lonsdale Boys

Ladies Day at Epsom Downs, otherwise known as Oaks Day, dawned bright and hot. I toyed with the idea of wearing my straw trilby, until I saw the forecast for thunder storms. "Do not expose to water", screamed the label in the hat band. So I left it at home, adopting a sunglasses and suncream combination instead. 

Oh, and a pink shirt that resembled the colour of my forehead by the end of the day. 
Nicked from Bacchy's FB timeline 
We were the Lonsdale Boys on Ladies Day: the Lonsdale Pedestrians is a £25 enclosure on the downslope of the camber opposite the Grandstand. Nev and I arrived together and found Bacchy sprawled by the ½ furlong pole with an overstuffed cool bag at his feet. Rather than minesweeping the corporate provisions like last year, Bacchy had brought his own goodies. 

Top class berth. There was none of the rubbish PA nonsense you get in the cheap seats at Cheltenham, where one speaker per 2,000 punters means a struggle to hear the race call. Here there was a white pole laden with high-tech sub-woofers every few yards. Nothing wrong with the output, as Nev discovered during a phone call to his better half. 

Clouds gathered over the open top buses and above the fair on the Downs. Just like Tomasz Shafernacker had predicted earlier that morning. 

The Downs have hosted the proles for a free day out since Diomed won the first Derby in 1780. By 1793, The Times was reporting that “The road to Epsom was crowded with all descriptions of people hurrying to the races; some to plunder and some to be plundered. Horses, gigs, curricles, coaches, chaises, carts and pedestrians covered with dust crowded the Downs." 

For the first time in the meeting's 237 year history, 2017 saw the sponsorship of this historic area on the Downs. It is now known as Poundland Hill. "Just imagining the meeting where a bunch of posh dudes decided it was a good idea to call the free entry bit of Epsom the 'Poundland Hill' " tweeted the Racing Post's Tom Kerr, keen to highlight the Jockey Club's snobbery.

There I was trying to take a pretty picture down the track only for Nev to ruin it by trying to lick the crust off a piece of seagull crap. He didn't expect his dubious act to be photobombed by one of the girls in the group next to us though. And with such style too. 

The rains finally arrived, just in time to hinder the Oaks build up. Thunder and lightning. Very, very frightening. 

So much so that Daddys Lil Darling bolted on the way to the start. The horse was properly spooked by the storm and she was screaming straight towards the stalls. Jockey Olivier Peslier had no option but to bale out. He coolly reached down, popped his foot out of the stirrups and rolled out of the saddle onto the sodden turf. First time I'd ever seen that.

A scary moment. The filly pulled up without incurring any damage, but she had to be withdrawn from the race. This was a galling moment for the anglophile owners of the American filly who had flown her over the Atlantic for the race and were in the stands watching the desperate events unfold.  

The rain was belting down during the race. Frankie Dettori grabbed the rail on Enable and saw out a strong finish. Odds-on shot Rhododendron didn't stay the trip and currently provides the only blot on Aiden O'Brien's British and Irish 2017 Classic collection. 5 out of 6 and counting.
That's us by the 1/2f pole. Near the brolly. You have to squint.
(Credit - Racing Post)

By the sixth race, Bacchy had emptied his cool bag and was in the process of doing the same to his hip flask. Meanwhile, Nev was emptying the bookies satchels with equal alacrity. He had a winner in the opener, the mile handicap and then again in the Surrey Stakes. Collecting his fat wedge after Solomon's Bay romped home, his moment of glory was once again interrupted by the girl in the green dress.

She was having a good day. 

So were we. 

The sun reappeared after racing, just as we were heading to the curry house, where we were a little better behaved than last year. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Brigadier Gerard

“What even is brown sauce?”

CB-D is curious. Me, Daughter No 1 and he are on the way to Sandown races. The conversation has turned to the best condiment to put on your chips.

“Well, it’s tomatoes and spices and vinegar, mainly. Brings a meal to life. And molasses. “

DN1 and CB-D claim never to have tried it.

“Molasses? What are they?”

I’m on dodgy ground here.

“It’s a type of spice I think. Or maybe it’s a bean. Could be one of those things you find under a rock at the beach.”

“No, that’s a mollusc”, chimed DN1.

“Oh yeah.”

The bloke next to CB-D desperately tried to avert his eyes to avoid blurting out laughing. His screwed up, tortured face reminded me of the centurion in ‘Life of Brian’ trying not to corpse when Palin’s Pontius Pilate says “Anybody else feel like a little... giggle... when I mention my fwiend...Biggus...Dickus?”

CB-D googled molasses.

“Urgh. It’s like the bits of sugar left over from when they are refining it that they can’t use in anything else”.

There was precious little brown sauce consumption done at the track. Both teenagers are vegetarian and the famous tangy pottage was not applied to either their falafel wrap or their halloumi burger.

Sandown racecourse on Brigadier Gerard evening is not really HP Sauce territory. The place, bedecked with geraniums and marigolds, is more your Pimms No 1 venue, of which there were many purveyors. DN1 availed herself of at least two servings of ‘summer in a glass’, with a good half bunch of mint leaves jammed in the top. Classy.  CB-D and I were on cider and bitter, respectively and three of us set up base on the open top tier of the stands around the parade ring, bathed in evening sun.

I tried to identify particularly interesting traits about the horses being led around the lush lawns for the benefit of the two novice teenage punters in my charge. I tried. I failed. Most of my observations were of a lowly “look at the size of that monster,” “he’s just done a dump”, and “oh look, there’s Frankie Dettori”.

Nevertheless, it would be hard to imagine more pleasant scenes than those between-race interludes on the sun decks. Such moments, of course, needed selfies to make them complete. They are never my strong points, selfies. Short arms and overactive face muscles are to blame. I delegated the shooting to CB-D. The initial results were mixed…
"Let me in! It's my phone!"

"Daddy, can you try to look normal on a photo just once?" 
DN1 had casually said on the way to the track that her punting strategy involved clearing “…about £700. That would be nice”.  After three races that had steadfastedly refused to offer up runners (let alone winners) at the average odds of 35/1 required to turn her £4 stake per race into the targeted sum, she said that the new plan was to scour the floor for discarded winning betting slips or perhaps vouchers for High Street stores. Interesting approach.

It didn’t come to that, because in the lucky, lucky last, she found Laidback Romeo who came with a perfectly timed run from out of the pack and up the hill to land her £45. It struck me as a long way short of the aspired £700, but she seemed to be ridiculously happy all the same.

Just before the final heat, CB-D was keen to get his bet down and said something about there being two minutes to the off.

“Two Minutes to Midnight!” I blurted, quick as a flash. “Maiden song. I’m off to see them on Saturday!”

CB-D looked at me blankly. But not so the bald, thick-set bloke in front of us who turned round to reveal his battered, fading Iron Maiden tour t-shirt, circa 1986. Worn as a badge of honour.

“So am I!” he beamed.

We were immediately off on a heavy metal banter-trail taking in landmark gigs across the years, only mildly distracted by the tittering of the youngsters at my side.

“See? Metal is a universal language”, I told them.

This just prompted more mirthful giggling. Yes, giggling. 

CB-D’s moment of glory had come much earlier. He played the sort of casual, sustainability-driven punt in the 2nd heat that really had no right to work. Having met us at the station straight from his teaching assistant job at a school of hard knocks in Aylesbury, he had not found chance to get his hands on any cold hard cash. This meant his first ever right-of-passage-real-live-bet at the Tote booth involved emptying the shrapnel from his pockets on to the counter with an ostentatious clinker.

It was all staked on Havana Grey - the bet came to a few coppers short of £4 – who blasted down the 5f course, smashing up the juvenile sprint without seeing another horse. Arguably one of the performances of the night. The winnings kept CB-D in bets and food until he located the cash point in the bowels of the betting hall.

This was actually the first race we saw. Thanks to a signalling failure, we were late. I didn’t see my winner – the three of us managed one each – Boycie in the opener. I heard him though. The bet was struck on the train and walking from Esher station down the lane adjacent to the course, the clatter of hooves bouncing off the good-to-firm was loud and clear, just the other side of the green ship-lap fence. I gathered later that the last set of rumbling hooves was probably my boy’s. He was held up until late by his jockey who despite dropping the whip in the last few strides, still got Boycie home by a half-length.

I was keen that the youngsters struck their own bets so that they became ingratiated with unique language of betting; and with the ebbs, flows and thrills that go with finding the right horse at the right price. However, after protracted checking and scanning of id cards each time to verify their ages, it became clear that this was adding very little fun value to the overall experience. The same trials happened at the bar. Inevitably, I ended up placing the bets and fetching the drinks whilst the pair had a well-earned rest in the comfy wicker garden sofas on the upstairs terrace. Bless.

This meeting is the richest evening card in Britain. Two Group 2s and two listed races attract decent prize money. The field sizes were only OK though. And I was surprised that on such a glorious night that the attendance wasn’t greater. Whilst a decent crowd had pitched up, it was nothing compared to the hordes that descended on the track in the cold midwinter for Tingle Creek Saturday. Midweek racing is still not that attractive compared to the weekend offerings.

Nothing wrong with the quality of the racing though. Big Orange was irresistible in the Henry II Stakes under Frankie Dettori, who judged a perfect ride from the front. Next stop, the Royal Ascot Gold Cup for him. Not to be out done, Ryan Moore brought Autocratic to the boil in a beautiful sweeping move to land the Brigadier Gerard. The country’s best two riders on current form taking the best two races of the night. Moor went on to bag a double with Khafoo Shememi beating CB-D’s shout, Escobar in the Heron Stakes.

Crazy kids
There was time for a last drink by the parade ring as the sun went down. I think the alcohol was starting to get to DN1 and CB-D who invented a potential new end-of-meeting race where punters would be picked at random to line up by the half-furlong pole and sprint for the line. I think this was inspired by seeing a couple of suited-and-booted lads who were carrying a fair bit of condition staggering around the lawns after a few too many sherberts. The youngsters even suggested that entrance tickets should state that participation was obligatory if picked. I told them that I liked idea as a fresh take on the occasional charity race at the end of big meetings. I undertook to promote the concept on this blog. It conjures up some hilarious images, though on reflection I can’t see it getting past the BHA, tbh. ROFL.
G'night all. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Short tales about long odds

This is just another shameless post of self promotion. 

Mug Punting and Smug Punting have both been republished and relaunched on Amazon at a new special price. Available in paperback and e-book formats.

"Horseracing is a sport of passion, opinions and failed bets on the whole - and all of these aspects are excellently captured and conveyed by author David Atkinson in his latest set of punting ramblings." 
Racing Post review of Smug Punting, July 2016.

"An eloquent, funny, well-written affair that will ring true and sound familiar to so many who spend their time trying to unravel the intricacies of horse racing."
Peter Scargill, Racing Post

Monday, 17 April 2017

Pains in the Trossachs

Picture the scene. Three innocent chaps up from the big city, gazing out hopefully from a remote bank on Loch Lomond. They are scanning the steely grey surface for signs of an approaching ferry from the opposite shore.
I see no ships...
Those three guileless blokes were me, Ben and Bryn. We looked again at the map. ‘Ferry P (summer)’ declared the text below the dotted line from an unmarked, unpopulated spot on the eastern shore (our location) to Ardlui (our aspired destination). This was a cool day streaked with rain in early April. A poor ‘Summer’ offering by anyone’s definition.

We had initially been reassured by Ben’s research that morning, over a fine Scottish breakfast, that suggested The Ardlui Hotel – the ferry operators – believed Summer in these parts began on 1st April. And that the afternoon service ran from 3.30pm. Stood there by the rickety landing stage in the middle of nowhere and with only an inflatable bollard on a flagpole to communicate with the far bank, it was easy for doubts to creep in.
mobile phone anyone?
Nevertheless, optimistic types that we are, the chipped orange bollard – it would remind you of something that had fallen off the hull of a fishing smack in about 1972 - was raised up the flag pole by means of a frayed length of sail twine and tied off in my best double-hitch. And we waited with an air of mirthful scepticism.  

It seemed improbable that such a low-tech solution could work. Where was the Facetime connection? Or at the very least a two-way radio? Was the ferryman really sat in his boat, waiting for the flagpole to twitch into life? Or – even if he existed – was it not more likely that he was in the hotel bar knocking back a dram of warming single malt on a quiet Thursday afternoon…

And yet after 6 minutes – Bryn had timed the wait – we spotted a small white launch sliding through the water towards us. I swear my heart jumped a little at the prospect. I lowered the bollard (only after being certain that the boat was really heading towards us and not just out for a pleasure trip around the headwaters) and we climbed aboard with big grins. We had caught the ferry by the slender margin of 6 days and one hour. Simple pleasures.

Loch Greg LeMond
More simple pleasures were on offer in the bar of the Ardlui Hotel, overlooking the calm waters and sun-dappled hills. We deserved a couple of beers on completion of our outward expedition from Crianlarich. The walk had initially followed the western side of Glen Falloch on the old military road on the downslopes of Breadalbane, where we ploughed and slopped through enough Highland cattle crap to fuel a small methane power plant.

Later, we ran in to a small herd of tough looking goats. They were sprawled over the path and were tucking into grass as wiry and unappealing as themselves. We got eye-balled a couple of times and they seemed unperturbed by our presence, necessitating a wide berth around them. I noticed that Bryn and Ben had were happy to let me take the lead.

The valley had broadened out and we crossed over the West Highland Railway and then the River Falloch to follow the eastern side of the glen towards Loch Lomond. The landscape around us changed from epic screes to undulating upland with more vegetation. The river gurgled by our left hand side overhung with bare birchwoods coated in moss and lichens. Gorse was just about coming into flower.

These had been the best views of the day. We had ascended and then rounded Cnap Mor to be rewarded with a dramatic reveal of the loch. The aspect had summed up our trip in one sweeping image. Bright sunshine picking out ridges in the rock and ripples on the water, either side of a backlit rain shower blowing in from the north west falling from a big sky of blanket cloud vented by light blue and blinding white.

Back in the pub, we were contemplating our next move. Walking home seemed like an effort too far after the day’s leisurely, but sufficiently taxing 10 mile hike. The rail link up to Crianlarich was broken because of a landslip outside Glasgow two days before. There followed some web-based double-checking, firstly to make sure our return sleeper service was running that night and secondly to find the time of the rail replacement bus service.

Internet connections were mostly OK on this trip, despite the well-publicised problems in rural UK. I managed to send in my Fantasy Cricket team to Danny in Whitehall two hours before the deadline, despite an intermittent signal, an un-navigable database and a phone with a smashed screen. My first attempt only had ten players. Apart from that small glitch, I thought I did pretty well. Later, Ben paid his child minder via electronic banking from a bleak spot five miles from civilisation in the lee of Derrydorach’s sheepfold. We have the technology.

Waiting for an Uber
Stood in the lay-by outside Ardlui station – no more than a raised platform with a small shelter and a bike rack – it occurred to us that if the train service had resumed, we would have no way of knowing. The station had a total absence of any current train service information, either electronic or personal. And there was no wifi out here. So Ben posted himself at the entrance ready to leap up the stairs and hold up any train that should decide to arrive on the up-line.

Then a bus lumbered in to view. The driver saw Ben and flashed lights at him in various combinations. The bus pulled up in the road at the front of the station. Not, of course, in the lay-by where there was a proper bus stop.

We gathered at the door. It didn’t open. Ben could see the driver gesticulating and flapping in animated fashion. Eventually the door swung open and we were blasted by ‘Edelweiss’ from the PA at a goodly volume. He quickly turned it down and pointed to knobs, buttons and dials on his console.

“I could-nae find the door opener! It’s like the Starship Enterprise here!”

“Best buckle up”, said Ben. "I don’t think he’s ever driven a coach before!”

He managed to find the CD knob again though. Soon we were swinging through the glen on a crooning wave of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and other popular classics. We were the only passengers and he dropped us right outside the hotel.

“Are you going all the way to Fort William?” I enquired.

“Am I buggery!”

Chortles all round.  

“Dalmally. That’s me!”

The Crianlarich Hotel had served us well. Arriving off the sleeper on Wednesday morning, we had abluted in the loos, stored our kit in the drying room and scoffed mountainous breakfasts, replete with haggis, black pudding and potato scone. Deeply conscious of high running Indyref2 feelings I had blurted out ‘cooked breakfast’ for my order, narrowly avoiding a ‘Full English’ diplomatic incident. Of course, ‘Full Scottish’ would have been more accurate and I was better prepared the next morning. 

Bryn had been initially hesitant about piling in to the fry up. Whilst Ben and I were awoken early in our berths by a stirring strong black coffee, it became apparent that Bryn had already been up and pacing the corridors. By then he was back on his bunk and unmoving. The whisky sweats had descended.

The previous evening had seen us celebrating the journey with a few beers in the buffet car. As we sped through the Midlands and lumbered through the industrial North-West we had gradually outstayed the other passengers. It was time for a nightcap and the extensive malt whisky menu was consulted.

It had been tricky to make selections. Whether the Auchentoshan 12 year with its “nose of still-warm Christmas pudding”; the Balblair 2003 Vintage “with the enticing pull of apricots, butterscotch, honey and citrus luring you in for further inspection”; or the Bowmore 18 year’s “freshly split oranges, damp wood and a hint of warm, sticky lemon”.  Who writes this stuff?

In the end I went for a Dalwhinnie 15 year which seduced me with hints of fruit salad and custard that gave way to flavours of “manuka honey and vanilla sponge”. Not any common or garden honey, you understand…

However, it was the Old Pulteney 12 year, matured in old bourbon casks, that did for Bryn. The medium finish evoked fewer of the “memories of a coastal fire with hints of burning oak and spice” and more of the spinning-sleeper-compartment and thumping-frontal-lobe sensations.

Nothing that the brekkie and walk up Strath Fillan didn’t easily sort out. Though the first map crisis of the day can’t have helped. We hadn’t even found the West Highland Way before we were looking at a roundabout that refused to be correlated with Explorer Sheet 364. In the end, we decided it was a new relief road around Crianlarich that the OS hadn’t yet caught up with. We ignored it and headed for the hills.

The first part of the walk was through upland pine woods with glimpses north-east of the dominating hulk of Ben More, together with his brothers and sisters.  The path was cut through with lively streams before we crossed over the more substantial River Fillan, past the ruined Kirkton Priory and then on to a coffee-and-cake pit stop at the Auchtertyre campsite.

All the while, at least it seemed that way, Ben had been relating the grisly details of his recent vasectomy.

At first I thought our hero of the snip was using Bryn and I as a kind of therapeutic intervention. Unloading his pain – of which there was quite a lot – in order to staunch the flow (as it were) and move on. Certainly, graphic analysis of the procedure – pubic shaving, elastic bands, distracting holiday conversation, tube incisions, burning cauterisation and subsequent bruising - had a cathartic quality about it. But the level of interest shown by Bryn went beyond casual interest or sympathetic understanding. Whilst Ben had introduced the subject over those single malts on the train the previous evening, by the next afternoon it was Bryn who was again keen to pick over the minutiae. He’s next I reckon.

Anyway, it made us vividly aware of any strenuous effort Ben made in ascending the various peaks in our path. “Do you need to give your nads a rest, Ben?”, “Don’t strain over that boulder”, “Are you wearing the right waps?” and other supportive comments were freely and regularly offered. Indeed our buttressing went beyond mere words. At one point (and I even I hesitate to relate this), Ben made use of my ‘Glide’ anti-blister stick on his chafing bollocks to ease his passage up a sheer slope. The stick had last been used on my fomenting feet a few months previously, so I couldn’t see what real harm it would do…

We had chosen a peak above Tyndrum as our off-piste climb. The hitherto nameless mound became known as hill 534 in respect of its metreage. It swiftly became known as many other, less-printable names too, as ridge upon successive, boggy ridge gave way to yet more false summits. The view from the top back down the valley, ultimately, was worth it. We took many top-of-the-hill pics, Ben re-arranged his sack and then we struck westerly to find sheltered spot in which to scoff our sarnies.

Less fun was had getting down the hill into Tyndrum. Barbed wire seemed to be hemming in our descent at every turn. Trying to find a crossing point from a Forestry Commission plantation over the West Highland Line proved challenging. Eventually – and this time the map proved to be accurate – we found and made use of a disused iron footbridge. Like the goat herd the next day (and indeed the raising of the ferry bollard) I noticed the boys hanging back a little as we surveyed the decrepit construction before us. So I blundered onwards. The bridge was fine, though the rail tracks could clearly be seen between its creaking, moss-covered iron ribs under our feet. We had more wire to negotiate at the other side and one wonders why the bridge was still there. Lucky for us that it was.

Tyndrum wouldn’t be the most picturesque stop off in the Highlands. But it just might be the smallest village with two railway stations. Neither of them could help us get back to Crianlarich, though. Trains seemed sporadic in the late afternoon and as we enjoyed a couple of pints in the Tyndrum Inn, I had thought I’d found bus to get us back. Off we toddled to the bus stop. And waited. And waited a bit more. There was no bus.

We asked at the café about a taxi. The waitress said,

“Och, the taxi is coming for me at 5 o’clock when I finish here.”

That’s THE taxi, then.

“But I’ll see if he’ll take ye as well. Are ye three?”

So that’s what we did.

The trip back home on the Sleeper was as efficient as on the way north. Although we had travelled in the Easter holidays, the trains were not too busy. On the journey out of Euston, the train manager had put the three of us in two adjacent cabins with the door wedged open. A sort of sleeper knock-through. Ben and Bryn had one set of berths and I shared the other with Bryn's giant red, wheeled-suitcase had the other.  Ben’s little hard shell suitcase with plastic wheels wasn’t much better. I felt very smug with my pukka rucksack swinging from my shoulders as they rattled and clattered their suitcases through the quiet streets of Crianlarich at 7.45am. Tourists. Little did they know I’d had to let out the waist strap to the loosest possible setting just to get the thing round my expanding girth.

On the way home, the train manager again sorted us out. We had taken the cheap-skate option and booked seats instead of cabins. We boarded the train and made our way through the buffet to the seated carriage.

“Coach S?” we enquired.

“Sorry, it was too cold in there and we’ve had to close it”

We looked at each other in some confusion and the train manager paused.

“I’ll see if we can find you some berths”, she eventually said.

And she did. She found us adjacent cabins, as on the journey two days earlier, but the connecting door was locked this time. This deprived me of the chance to read excerpts to the boys from my book, ‘Greatest Train Journeys of the World”. 

So I’m taking my revenge here with some choice cuts about the West Highland Railway, which pretty much sums up the majesty of the trip we were about to complete:

“The 100 mile West Highland Railway begins at Craigendoan Junction where the train turns abruptly north along a ledge with broadening views over Gare Loch. The diesel engines growl up the bank through leafy Helensburgh, while ships ride at anchor in the estuary, before disappearing behind loch-side woods.

The views along Loch Lomond are some of the finest of the journey , the railway running along a shelf cut into the hillside above a dense canopy of trees. The country becomes wilder as the train starts the climb up Glen Falloch. After heavy rain, not unusual hereabouts, waterfalls can be seen scoring a ribbon of white against the dark rock.”

Same time next year, boys?

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Cheltenham wrap

Cheltenham town is increasingly transformed by the Festival with each passing year. Walking down the High Street on the second morning felt like visiting a charity fete on steroids. For raffle tickets, think Paddy Power’s cheerleader girls handing out racecards; for the village choir, hear beat-boxing and street rap; and for the fancy dress show, see the brazen Ladies Day outfits and St Patrick’s leprechauns. Try telling the bloke air-walking in the zorbing ball at 11am that a more traditional thrill might be apple bobbing on the green. In fact that giant plastic bubble was a perfect metaphor for the Festival. An event suspended in time and space, isolated from the routines and rituals of day-to-day life.

Looking back from over the horizon of another week simply accentuates that feeling. Everything has returned to normal. It is hard to recall the intoxication of Monday’s pre-festival triggers: unfathomable declarations, head-spinning bets and stomach twisting anticipation. The Festival is like another world. A parallel universe.

I was so worked up in mid-afternoon the day before the action started that I had to go and walk the dog. Anything to bring my hyper ventilation back under control. On the way to the station the next morning, bags packed and wagers staked, I saw a friend on the other side of the busy road.

“Hi Sue”, I waved manically. “Off to the Festival!” Pause. No reaction. “Cheltenham Festival!” Glimmer of recognition. “Want any tips? Hahahah!” Too much. She smiled politely and skittered away, keeping the Berko Mum’s whip money safely under wraps. I marched onwards, ignoring the curious glances of passers-by who had witnessed the exchange.  The Festival is a mind-melding mood changer.


If the town groans under the weight of Festival activity, then the course doubly so. Having missed all the action at Prestbury Park in 2016, the increase in numbers since 2015 is palpable. Over 260,000 pairs of oxfords, slingbacks and other assorted footwear crossed the threshold over the four days this year, including a record attendance on Wednesday. This had traditionally been the quietest day. Not anymore. Si and I mosied over to the turn after the home straight where there is a good view over the track from either the rail or the open temporary grandstand. Not anymore, again. There was barely a seat to be had in the newly roofed stand. Instead we found a spot by the sea of picnic tables (another recent addition) to cheer home the cosy win of Cause Of  Causes in the cross-country.

This was Si’s first winner of the meeting, coming after race 12. The Festival is an unforgiving place when there is no winning to be had. The last time we were here together, I had to wait until the Bumper, race 14, before I had a victory to celebrate. Si took it all on the chin and muscled his way back in to the game by Friday.

My punting in this Iron Man of extreme betting heats went the other way. A healthy position at the end of Wednesday was squandered by Friday and I made a loss. A festival balance sheet in the red is thankfully a rarity these days, after the bad old days of the noughties. Hard to take all the same.

Buveur D’Air, imperious in the Champion Hurdle, added a touch of gloss to my reasonably buff record in this race; and Apple’s Jade was a stout winner in the best renewal of the Mares Race I’ve yet witnessed.  If Wednesday is quieter for attendances, it screams value to me in the betting ring. Yet again Champion Chase day, or Ladies day as it is now marketed (quite effectively it would appear) saw my best result. Willoughby Court held on at 14/1 in a thrilling finish with favourite and many people’s Festival banker, Neon Wolf. Shouting him home down by the packed rail, I was swimming against the flow of animated punters on the Wolf. And then I was literally a-leap, as in the upstreaming salmon, when the Court prevailed by a neck. At least I have that. An overall loss, yes, but I have my Festival moment.  

The crowd control seemed to struggle under the weight of extra racegoers. The queues for the shuttle bus up to the track from Cheltenham Spa were long, tortuous and impossible to understand. Those at the course coming back were simply chaotic and bad tempered. We walked on Wednesday instead and spotted Lee Westwood with a small entourage in front of us. He looked very dapper in speckled sports jacket , Peaky Blinders cap and black longwing brogues. He’s a chunkier bloke than you might imagine though, cutting a tough profile with his bulging eyes and rough stubble. Westwood is part owner of Augusta Kate and he was there all week, no doubt, looking forward her run in Friday’s Albert Bartlett. She finished 6th after an indifferent round of jumping.

Being able to ignore the shuttle bus scrum on Day 2 was bliss. Just one of the many luxuries afforded us by staying with our friends Chris and Laura. Luxuries like relieving us of our bags whilst in that initial, interminable bus line; like a chilled glass of chardonnay on arrival on the first night; like whistling up a chilli as we collapsed back at the house before our train journey home. And in return we gladly corrupted their eldest into the nefarious ways of Festival punting and offered up crap tips. Thank you guys. Legends.

Top class hosts
A carnival atmosphere took over the packed town centre streets after dark. We found a couple of decent and quietish real ale boozers off the main drag, eschewing the wall-to-wall party in the Queens Hotel this year, and bumped into a party in the road instead. A young Irish lad with a footballers haircut – short cropped sides and a floppy bleached blond mop on top - had become tailed off from his main group. He was becalmed in the middle of the road where an Audi had juddered to a sharp stop inches away.

He pointed in turn with outstretched arms at the lady driver, as if he was doing a slow-motion front crawl. “Oi you” (Arm change) “I’ve already lost all me money today.” (Arm change) “I don’t want to lose me legs as well!”

Off he staggered with a leer across his chops into the Wetherspoons where a bad Van Morrison cover band was scratching out Brown Eyed Girl.

By the time I hit the Barley Mow on Friday, I was counting the cost of 6 runners’ up and two well-placed late fallers on Wednesday and Thursday. I’ve been around the betting block enough to know that when you are hitting the target, you need a couple of bullseyes because the phase never lasts long. So it proved. The crossbar was my nemesis and Friday was luckless.

But this is the day when real punting gives way to excitable Fantasy Festival action. I gave the comp a real scare too, with a third place in the deciding Grand Annual when a winner would have given me the pot.  Mellish, stood next to me in the bookies as I became animated and then deflated, was the long-time leader and eventual winner of Bacchy’s genius tenner-in-winner-takes-all competition. “You woz getting quite excited there for a minute”, he observed, barely turning a hair. I don’t think he was ever worried about me nicking his prize in that desperate last.

Sizing John. Classy winner of the Gold Cup
On the phone next day, Bruv told me that he’d won some cash in the Daily Telegraph Cheltenham competition. “£100 for winning the Twitter league!” That’s hilarious. He’s never used Twitter in his life. Receiving a text from him is a Red Letter day.

The jumps game is too hard. I’m spent. Roll on the flat.