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.

Packed

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.





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