Strong stomach for a day at the races

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The Independent Online
It seemed half of London and more than half of Ireland descended on Cheltenham yesterday for the most important jump meeting of the year.

Unlike Ascot, the three-day National Hunt Festival is, supposedly, a free-for-all affair; the races for the people. While it is possible to pay pounds 345 for a seat in the new Panoramic Restaurant and pounds 50 a head for access to the Club Enclosure, it costs just pounds 10 to while away the day in the Courage Enclosure.

Bruce Carless, a chartered accountant soaking up the spring sunshine and listening to the brass band in the pounds 20 Tattersalls enclosure, said: "We just want a good day out in the sunshine, to have a bet and a drink. You don't have to spend pounds 50 to do that. It's the atmosphere we want."

The Irish had jetted into Britain in their droves for the Festival. Some will be staying longer than expected. One such, a "canny gambler", according to his friends, had seen his horse, Make a Stand, win the Champion Hurdle race. He had backed it 5-1 with pounds 2,500. "I was talking to Martin Pipe [the trainer] this morning," he said proudly. "I only came for the day, but I'll stay for the whole week now. That's about pounds 12,000 - without the taxman bothering me." With a bit of luck he will have a little left over for Saturday. "We're going to have a big bash on the rugby international between Wales and England," he said.

Londoners, armed with binoculars and hip flasks, had travelled down on special trains. In a haze of smoke, men pored over Sporting Lifes and Racing Posts. "Give us a winner then," said one as he showed his ticket to the inspector. Some were being entertained by companies for the first time. They did not know what to expect. Peter Harthill, a caretaker, was prepared for the worst: "I've got a tie in my pocket, but I ain't put it on," he said. "I hate wearing ties."

Tony Mountenay had no such worries. He had paid his tenner and expected to be quids in at the end of the day. As manager of a fishmonger on Sloane Avenue, Chelsea, he was not short of inside information: "A lot of my customers own horses," he said, reaching for another cigarette. "Handy contacts I've got at times - Peter O'Sullevan, Colonel Cook, Henry Cecil, Lester Piggott."

For Mr Mountenay, Cheltenham is the best day of the year: "When they called it the Festival, they meant it. Royal Ascot is very snobbish. People who don't go racing go there to be seen. Cheltenham's unique ... Any horse that is, is there. It's a party, that's what it is. One big party." But for all the talk of it being a "working men's races", someone must be drinking the 2,700 gallons of champagne and tucking in to the ton of salmon reportedly consumed over the three days.

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