Tuesday, 4 March 2014

What's it all about?

With a week to go, the anticipation is pretty well unbearable. I’m busy at work, trying to focus on business to get things cleared so I can soak up the Festival with a clear conscience and a sharp mind. But I’m distracted. Every tweet and update has me scrabbling for the only price comparison site that matters. Oddschecker gets a daily hammering.

Today was no exception. My Tent Or Yours has a punctured near fore something or other. What does that mean for my sweatily clutched Champion Hurdle vouchers? Does the fact that Jezki and Melodic Rendezvous have both shortened up make me feel better about their real chances or just better about some theoretical value I’m sitting on?

So why this agonising and buttock clenching? Why the feverish and cack handed ante-posting? (On Sunday I backed Suntiep at 16-1 for the four-miler. On Monday I enthusiastically backed him again at 20-1, keen to slam down my Betfred new-account-free-bet. This was a howler. The existence of my previous day’s bet had been completely overlooked until the deed was done.)

What is it that provokes temporary, slack-jawed madness? This gung-ho sunspension of reality? I’ve plundered my back catalogue of festival reporting and stepped back in time ten years. This is what it meant to get to the Festival in 2004. This is still what it is all about now:

We have been here before. I feel like an old pro. This is a well-worked routine now. No accommodation or logistical turmoil this time. Everything is slipping together cosily like sheepskin cheekpieces on a recalcitrant gelding. We even have reserved seats on the Festival Flyer with a proper table at which to scoff the traditional Burger breakfast. The couple sat opposite Bacchy and I serve to emphasise the old hand feeling.
“Yeah, we’ve been every day since 2000.”
Bullish words fall easily from chapped lips, particularly considering the 2001 festival was cancelled! These two are regulars though, mostly only for the Tuesday but returning on Thursday this year.

We drop into easy banter all the way to Cheltenham. We swap bankers and bismarks and tales of past glories. It’s soon clear that she is the brains of the outfit and supplies the expertise for the adventure. Her nap today is a Philip Hobbs novice in the opener called Lacdoudal. The more I look at this the more I think she’s right! I’m desperate to kick off the festival with a winner. I’ve never done so any festival yet.

There is another tip to be tucked away in the kit bag a few minutes later: they go to the Arc de Triomphe meeting at Longchamps every year. Only a fiver to get in apparently. A fiver! What value. The day is a seamless parade of Group 1 races, but is largely populated by English punters making a Parisian weekend of it. Now there’s a thought.

The train disgorges hungry punters onto Cheltenham Spa platform 1 on time. We head straight for the track. Stepping off the shuttle bus I brace myself for the first rips of slicing wind raging over Cleave Hill. It doesn’t materialise. In fact the weather is positively clement. Warm even. Batting away swarms of ticket touts hanging around like irritating flies adds to the Summer-like illusion.

Watching the weather and, more pertinently, the watering plans of Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse are always pre-festival sports guaranteed to cause consternation. This year there has been sufficient rain to make Claisse turn off the taps reasonably early. The suspicion remains that he wants good-to-soft ground on the opening day so that it will dry out to give good ground on Gold Cup day.

Cheltenham has a contract with Met Office man John Kettley to provide weather forecast advice. This isn’t enough for one trainer though. In an RP the previous week, the Middleham-based trainer Ferdy Murphy says,
“I have an owner in the pig business and he has a ten-day forecast for the Cheltenham area that predicts showers for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, with rain on Tuesday. If that’s right I would be happy. If it isn’t I wouldn’t be." 
Never mind satellite imaging and radar technology. Pig farming is the future of weather forecasting!

Building works are now complete at Prestbury Park and we know that there are left luggage facilities this year. Bacchy e-mailed Cheltenham MD Edward Gillespie to congratulate him on the improvements brought by the renovation and to enquire about the availability of left luggage. Mr Gillespie replied in the affirmative. In fact he was so impressed with Bacchy’s tone that he replied twice. The second e-mail said something like “we seem to have had a lot of enquiries about this particular service this year”.
“Your Managing Director says you’ve got left luggage facilities. We’d like to leave our Bags please”, asserts Bacchy at the Information Desk.
“Er, yeah, think that’s here mate. Yeah, just need to do a search and I’ll give you a ticket.”
He rifles the bags, gives us a raffle ticket each and chucks the bags on the floor behind him. This guy is ensconced in a tiny cubicle. I have visions of him cowering under a leaning tower of luggage come the Pertemps final.

The new stand is fantastic, though. We make for the Desert Orchid bar on the top deck, line up some Guinesses and take in the sun-bathed track laid out like a carpet before us. There is a constant stream of helicopters flying in owners, jockeys and wealthy members.
“It’s like Apocalypse Now”, I remark.
“Ha ha. ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ …”, quotes Bacchy , without breaking his stare at the choppers.
This is a splendid vantage point and for the first time affords a proper high-level view of the courses from the Courage End. There are three of them interweaving across the venue - Old (first two days), New (Gold Cup day) and the cross-country course. There used to be a fourth, the Park Course, now abandoned.

I get a proper look at some of the notorious obstacles that cause mayhem in the heat of battle. The water jump on the New Course which accounted for Beef or Salmon last year and the infamous second last on the Old Course which left Vinnie Keane punching the ground in unforgettable despair two years on the trot after Latalomne came crashing down.

Cheltenham offers conferencing facilities in the main grandstand complex when there is no racing. I attended an event held there the previous November and can vouch first hand for the excellence of the facilities, even if the conference was long and dull. Lunch was held in the spankingly good panoramic restaurant at the top of the Grandstand. I spent the time it took to demolish roast chicken breast, ratatouille and boilies followed by lemon syllabub boring fellow delegates to distraction with lyrical observations and remembrances about the festival; spraying them in my enthusiasm with morsels of the table d’hote. These events are all about networking in my view.

The corporate boxes were used for seminar rooms and I had a ‘one day this will be me’ moment as I took in the well-appointed balcony seats, TV screens, mini bar and fridge (wouldn’t want the champagne too warm…).

Snap back to the present and the atmosphere in the bar is building nicely. Animated discussions and belly laughs. It’s easy to tell Bacchy and I sense the anticipation keenly. The beer is going down a bit too easily, the bitty conversations are punctuated by frequent and unsolicited hand-clapping, insane grins and “C’mon”s. Infact we are both now gabbling like excited kids on Christmas Eve:
“Got your placepot down, Davoski? Yeah, yeah. Me too. Playing it straight this year. No fancy systems this time which crash and burn at the first. What a farce that was last year, eh?”
 “Seen this on the telly, Bacchy? It’s Dessie in all his pomp clearing the last. Fine beast. What a horse.”
“Hey, what about that trip to the Arc that those two on the train mentioned. I fancy that.”
 “Yeah, blindin’ that. We should get the girls organised. Tell ‘em we’re taking ‘em to Paris for the weekend. Ha ha.”
 “Where are we standing for the first? I want a good perch. Down by the rail maybe”
There’s still a good hour to go before the off, but we both feel compelled to check out the best pitch as soon as possible. I need a leak first and have a strange Fawlty Towers-esque moment. I follow the signs for the loos at the top deck of the stand, go round the corner, down the stairs and push the door marked ‘to the toilets’ to find myself blinking into sunshine dappling the main food concourse at the back of the grandstand. “Jokers”, I spit whilst joining the long queue for the bogs in the usual place. Not such a well-appointed new stand, then. 

Another complaint. Unless you are flush against the running rail there is no chance of seeing the big screen on the course side of the Courage End. There’s another big screen overlooking the food court, and tellies in all the bars, but you can’t see the course from there.  So in a tactic straight out of the Tony McCoy coaching manual, we tuck ourselves tight up against the rail.  

I really want to get off to a good start. Have I already mentioned this? In the Supreme I’ve replaced my non-running Lingo bet with an each way double starting with Albuhera. I’m also on Cardenas each way and now decide to have a little saver on the beast recommended to us on the train.

My ante-post book is a shambles this year. I’ve had many more bets than last year but because of defections, injuries and basic mug punting I am almost £50 down before the tape goes up for the opener. Bacchy has a much healthier looking portfolio, starting with Brave Inca in this. He is not to be disappointed.

So it all comes down to this. 30,000 enthusiastic worshippers at the temple of the jumping horse, intoxicated with faith, hope and Guinness.

The customary roar sweeps over from the packed Tatts enclosure. Heart in mouth. Lump in throat. Ticket in hand. Here we go. Helter skelter. By the time I come up for air it will be 3.30 with three Grade 1s already over.



Adapted from 'Hardy Perennials in Mug Punting - Short Tales About Long Odds 


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