……the Cheltenham Festival that is. Not the kebab house. Six weeks to go. Touching distance. Tickets bought, gaff sorted, travel planned. And most importantly, ante-post bets being struck and demolished on a daily basis. That’s how I know it’s close enough to smell. It’s been the highlight of my year - something like Christmas, birthdays and holidays rolled into one big adrenaline-soaked betting frenzy - for the last 10 years.
But my participation in the 2011 version has been in some doubt. I’ve shared that glorious festival decade with my erstwhile pro-punting mate Bacchy. We have ridden the highs and lows together. Confided the intimate details of rash exactas, embarrassing Lucky 15s and salvage trade-outs. We’ve eaten monumental kebabs, tackled Auntie Mona’s mountainous high teas and ridden the Queens Hotel party wave. In that time Bacchy has graduated from a £10-a-bet mug punter (like me) through escalating commitments of disposable income and finally to fully fledged, full-time gambler. Some journey.
Strangely, Bacchy’s emergence as horse powered income generator didn’t change the relationship of our punting. The common enemy was the bookie. He and I had very different profit margins riding on winners. But you would never have guessed so. An unremitting joy has been the camaraderie, competition and gentle rivalry in both the fervent Cheltenham build up and the festival hothouse itself. The period has been characterised by exultant moments of triumph – often shared – and genuine pleasure/commiseration in each others’ individual successes and failures. All this despite the massively different staking plans.
And now it’s over. After a couple of years at the top table, Bacchy has found it necessary to supplement the gambling income with regular paid employment. I understand that. His punting numbers were big, but not quite big or regular enough. Cashflow is always going to be an issue in that line of work, particularly in a jumps game that suffers regular bleak-midwinter closedowns. In these straightened economic times, the job Bacchy has secured is a business manager in a local school. It’s a good job, I’ve no doubt. But the Cheltenham Festival is run in term time. There are no holidays for school staff in term time. These facts are irreversible and non-compatible. So that’s it. No more festival antics for the deadly duo.
Needs must, etc, etc. I understand all this. But when Bacchy e-mailed me to confirm the grizzly truth back in the Autumn, I was in bits. I felt choked, breathless and dizzy. Hyper-ventilation and cold sweats. I would have wept if I wasn’t a hard northern bastard. Bacchy must have been worse. We both knew this was on the cards. It wasn’t entirely a bolt from the blue. But that didn’t soften the blow.
In my inconsolable grief, Mrs A was going witless. “Surely someone will go with you to the bloody festival.” She didn’t understand. “You don’t understand. It won’t be the same. It won’t be the same”, I wailed, rather pathetically. “You are going to be insufferable if you don’t go. I don’t think I can take it”. There was no trace of mirth around her lips. She was deadly serious.
Slowly, from this wreckage, a tentative solution shimmered into view. Like the Champion Chase field cresting the Prestbury Park Hill. Dad and bruv Paul are in to their racing now like never before. They’ve never experienced that magical atmosphere, that sharp thrill as the tapes go up on Tuesday afternoon, the need for nervy, incessant, barely comprehensible banter of utter, utter drivel before each race. Could this be the year?
I floated the idea just before Christmas. Dad and Paul were warm to the prospect. Almost as if they’d read my thoughts. We toyed with a modest appearance on the Tuesday, with a B&B overnight and then home for the coverage on telly. I could settle for that. Better than nothing and Champion Hurdle Day is always my favourite. Dad and Paul came down for Christmas. By Boxing Day we’d planned an assault on the first two days with an option on the third and a cosy rented cottage in Stroud. It felt like the cavalry coming over the ridge to save the day. Come on!!!
So I’m fired up for this one. Just like every year. It won’t be the same. How could it be? But it will be excellent. Different. A new chapter. New experiences. I’ve told Bacchy there’s room in the cottage for him in case he gets a sudden reprieve. The chances are slimmer than a Monsignor come back, apparently. But we’ll keep a slug of laphroaig in the bottle, just in case. He's delighted I'm maintaining the tradition.
I can feel the slack jawed babbling starting to well up inside. I can sense the quickening heartbeat as I survey the ante-post mayhem. And I can’t wait.