Better than Christmas

This year, for the first year, we based ourselves in Cheltenham. Naturally, this is the aspiration of any regular festival stalwart. However it is harder to pull off than you might imagine. Securing a berth in the hallowed heart of this Regency gem is either an exorbitantly expensive or frustratingly booked-up undertaking. Had Mary & Joseph pitched up here for the virgin birth, the only way they would have found a stable would have been to part-own the favourite for the Supreme. In which case any Irish landlady would have willingly thrown open her doors.

There is another way. What you need is some very good mates who are happy to convert their splendid abode into a 5-star b&b for the duration. Best result of the week.  Chris and Laura, impeccable hosts, looked after us wonderfully. And it was not without some risk on their part. Yes, they knew me. And I could vouch for Si. But they had never met Nev before… Still, the behaviour benchmark was fractionally lower than we had anticipated. “Have they been sick on the carpet yet?” had asked Laura’s Mum.

Nev only joined us at Chris and Laura’s on Wednesday morning. He had booked into a tidy spot in Bourton-on the-Water before the Cheltenham opportunity became available. He made his mark though. Within half an hour, he was hammering away at our hosts’ generously lent laptop, trying to find and then print his Wednesday ticket. Because he’d lost it. Honestly, what sort of total prat would do such an idiotic thing?

Well, me for one. A few years ago I spilled out of the first day, exhausted and winner-free, saying to Bacchy that I’d avoid any confusing ticketing issues by ripping up that day’s expired voucher and chucking it away. I realised the next morning that I had, naturally, trashed the 2nd day ticket by mistake. That was an expensive tout-job to get in.

And Bryn for another. After leaving our Tewksbury base for the track at our very first three-day adventure, he realised he’d left all our tickets back at the ranch.  

Nev was unable to recover the e-mail with the all important pdf attachment. Neither could he wring any support from the Jockey Club. After getting a runaround from their sales team that would make the Cross Country course look like a 5 furlong sprint, he gave up. Laura had already done so, having dashed out of the front door some minutes earlier with a yoga mat tucked under her arm. Peace for body and mind. Si and I thought about joining her.

Approaching the collection booth up at the track was a lot more fruitful. Nev decided on a tête à tête with the ticket lady. Literally. He stuck his head so far through the half-window that he was on tip-toes with his backside in the air. “Go and do something funny with Nev”, said Si, priming his phone camera. I demurred. There are enough of those kind of photos of me in circulation already…

This in-yer-face approach worked. Nev got his ticket re-emailed, which he then downloaded to his phone so it could be scanned by the man with the magic machine at the turnstiles. 

Faugheen was the highlight of Ruby Tuesday. We were stood by the rail in glorious sunshine watching the tactics unfold on the big screen. It was hard to judge the pace but when The New One and then Jezki came almost alongside to lay down a proper challenge, the excitement was palpable. And then, easy as you like, at top of the home straight, Ruby let out a little bit of Faugheen’s tight reign and whispered “go”. Did he go! The roar from the stands opposite, in all my 16 festivals, was the loudest, most spine-tingling sensation I’ve ever experienced. I’ll probably say the same next year. 
l-r: Arctic Fire, Jezki, Kitten Rock, Vaniteux, Faugheen
Faugheen and Ruby Walsh take the plaudits
This was the third leg of the famous bookie-busting four-timer that never was. The opening leg was my first Supreme win ever, Douvan. However, that status remains in some doubt because the wager was struck with William Hill as a qualifier for a free bet in their massive Supreme give-away. “Does it count?” I texted Bacchy. “Does it fuck”, came the reply about three seconds later. Fair enough.

By the fourth leg, Nev had found himself in a deep (but fairly one-sided) conversation with a broad scouser, made more unintelligible still by his level of intoxication. Nev was trying to explain that his three timer rested on Annie Power winning the mares race. Scouser dribbled something back that involved a fair amount of “eerrrraaaarrrffkkkknnncchhhhhhhhhh” running into “fffkkkkkcccccchhhhhhhuuuaaarrcchhhh”. I’ve never seen Nev silenced. He couldn’t understand a word. His jaw was hanging loose. Si always has a canny ear for an accent and translated. Between them they informed Scouser that it was “a mares race…lady horses”. Scouser looked askance and then responded (after translation) “I don’t want a fucking education and I want a fucking winner!”

When Annie Power overreached at the last flight and triggered a ticker-tape storm of spent fourfold slips, there were immediate cries of bookie collusion and thrown-race allegations around us. Punters always want someone to blame. The fantasy could not have been better scripted if Fleet Street hacks had authored it themselves. News stories later in the day about bookie share prices falling sharply and then rising again just added to the drama. Great stuff.

Sharp quiffed young fellah-me-lad in my office had a bit of good natured grief for me when I returned to the office last week. I’d put him on to that four-timer in a rash moment a few weeks before the Festival. He’d shown his slip to a few mates and they had followed him in. To be honest, I think he had rather enjoyed the ride and the sense of being part of something big.

Si is the handicap King. No question. Coming in to the festival he’d punted Ebony Express (33-1) in the Imperial Cup and Violet Dancer (20-1) in the Betfair Hurdle. Across the four days he found The Druid’s Nephew in the 3 mile chase on Tuesday, Kilultagh Vic in the Martin Pipe on Friday and a good few placed horses besides. He also had Quantitativeasing bustled out of the way by Toutancarmont in the Cross Country when being wound up by Nina Carberry for a decisive thrust.

New stand taking shape
For my handicap contribution, I found Call The Cops in Thursday’s Pertemps Final after being impressed with his easy win two weeks before at Doncaster. Bacchy, in his fantasy festival update to the lads saw it another way:
“Three years ago Davoski collected a stack when Call The Police finished a remote third in Bobs Worth's RSA Chase. So naturally he backed Call The Cops today. Finding easy winners like that - it's what life's all about.”
 Cheeky bastard. So much for blood, tears, toil and sweat.

It wasn’t just the handicaps that fell prey to Si’s killer touch. He was feasting everywhere: Windsor Park in the Neptune; Vautour in the JLT; Martello Tower in the Albert Bartlett. He also had Moon Racer in the Bumper. But I didn’t mind that because I was on myself at a reasonably good ante-post price. My biggest winner of the Festival. I celebrated by smashing my half pint of guiness into the ground in front of the big screen and taking a bow. A bloke in a fluffy-hooded parka came up and wrapped his arms round me. “Did you win or lose?” he shouted. Really?

All that winning took some serious celebrating. This is where our exquisite pad in Cheltenham came into its own. And where Nev’s in Bourton didn’t. Fed up with paying £40 taxi fares, he headed home after racing on the last bus. Conversely, with the knowledge of only a short stagger home smugly tucked in our exit plans, Si and I picked up the craic in town. A few beers and a tasty curry were on the agenda.   

We smashed the former and utterly bombed on the latter. The highlight of the boozers was the Bath Arms at the end of the night. The stars of the show in this intimate local were not the assorted festival goers, but a revelling birthday party crowd who took turns to dance on the chairs and tables. One of the lads trying to elicit the affection of birthday girl slapped down some eye-popping moves reminiscent of the helicopter dance by the beanpole in the Ladbrokes’ advert. Si thought we could do better, but thankfully, we decided against putting that assertion to the test.

Finding a curry proved to be a challenge too far. The first restaurant was full of loud xenophobes; the second turned out to be a basement bar; and the third was rather too fine dining in price. The greasy chicken kebab and cardboard chips we ended up with from a takeaway joint was a total fail.

Nev was with us the next night when we celebrated our winners in the Queens Hotel, the legendary, almost mythical base of JP McManus and venue of the finest party in town: witness the gentleman on dance floor who could have passed for John Gosden in his heavyweight cashmere overcoat, navy Italian suit, silk tie, flapping members’ badge and flashing black brogues, giving the Kaiser Chiefs large and punching the air with each Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby belted out by the band; or the group of young guys in front of us who had quite clearly clubbed together to buy the company of a couple of escorts for the evening and were awkwardly groping their way around their trophies who discreetly wagged fingers and whispered the rules when the lads went too far. All human life…

We shipped out early on Thursday morning. My call. Si was well up for another day at the track, but the bookies were laying evens that my liver would pack up fractionally before my wallet, well ahead of the Kim Muir amateurs’ race.

Chris gave us a lift to the rail station. Above and beyond. If they had put their gaff on TripAdvisor, we would all have given it the full five blobs. There was further ticket trouble for Nev. This time the return rail ticket. He had to upgrade to an off-peak ticket from a super saver just to get through the barriers.    

Uxizandre was my biggest winner on the Thursday, though it should have been bigger. The Alan King inmate is in my 40 to follow for the season, but I had lost confidence in this exuberant jumper and had only backed him to small stakes. I thought he had lost form. It was good ground he was waiting for. And a galvanising ride helped. McCoy at his brilliant best aboard his last ever Festival winner.

The star of that electric Thursday was not Uxizandre though, but Vautour in the JLT. Ruby was buzzing after he climbed down from one of the cleanest, boldest most exhilarating rounds of jumping seen at the track by a novice in a good few years. It reminded me of Master Minded winning his first Champion Chase when audible intakes of breath greeted some of the breathtaking leaps that day. A dream Gold Cup renewal in 2016 is already being plotted by commentators that involves a triple-handed Mullins with Vautour, RSA winner Don Poli and this year’s blue ribband runner up Djakadam taking on stunning all-the-way novice winner Coneygree.

All-the-way winners were a real feature of this classic Festival. Eight or so horses made all or nearly all to win big Grade 1s and handicaps alike. The usual win-strike rate for front runners is two or three across the entire piece. It’s probably not a new trend, rather a mark of the quality of horses we’ve been treated to this year in a high-class exhibition.

£9.58. That was my total profit after 27 races and months of agonising. Head above water. Barely. There were some near misses though. The big one that got away was Road To Riches in the Gold Cup. My most confident bet. Landing that would have been a game changer. Whilst better ground would have been ideal, there are no complaints. He ran his race and was beaten by a tremendous horse on the day, who did not put a foot wrong.

I’m not sure that is how the Ladies of The Lamb saw it though.  Earlier in the week, a certain Ms Johnson had e-mailed the good ladies and said:
“With a combination of the Cheltenham Festival and a boozy lunch at the Atkinsons in the offing, you should really know better than to leave me with the kitty.  Let’s just say, after a few beers and glasses of wine it again seemed to be a good idea to get Mr Atkinson to put the tenner to good use by turning it into lots of tenners using his enormous skill and judgement. 
Dave – please would you let us know which ‘sure thing’ we should cheer for on Friday as, I hope you realise, the hopes and dreams of the Ladies of the Lamb are resting on this.”
Sadly, Road To Riches proved to be more like a cul-de-sac for the ladies’ ambitions as well as my own.

Fantasy Festival was an epic this year. Played out once again in the pressure cooker of the Barley Mow. Doubles had been landed all week to set up a dramatic final day. Running up to the Gold Cup, my Bruv was holding a slender advantage over Bryn. For some inexplicable reason, he decided to go all in on Silviniaco Conti, rather than playing a canny hand going in to the final competition race, the Grand Annual.  Shedding his usual cloak of caution, Bruv predictably went down in a glorious ball of flame, handing the trophy and £170 notes to Bryn. 

Bruv has crashed and burnt
Many beers and then whiskies were consumed and yet it was probably a more restrained affair than last year. Certainly in the sense that we didn’t descend into arm-wrestling competitions; most people got back to their actual homes as oppose to other peoples’; and Col didn’t blow as many raspberries on the exposed bellies of variously assembled punters. Col remains the most enthusiastic and committed cheerleader (minus pom-pom) of our involvement in this monster Festival and its associated competitions. He landed a spectacular acca on that final day and strolled out of the pub declaring the week to be “better than Christmas”.

It was inevitably Nev who brought the curtain down this year, via e-mail the following Monday: 
Just another week to forget - had to pay yet another taxi to get home on Saturday morning as I awoke late somewhere. It might have been Canning Town. Only twenty notes this time...” 
Until next year.


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