Stephen Little, he of the agonised Don's face and long fur coat, was at his pitch against the rail waiting as usual for the big money to roll in from the Grandstand punters next door. On Tuesday, the first day of the three-day National Hunt meeting, he had waited in vain. Only one bet of pounds 10,000 was recorded from the high-rolling classes and that was in the last race.
The Tattersall men, the bookies allowed to post the odds on boards under the archaic, almost feudal constitution of British Race Course Betting, were equally dismayed. One of them fielded pounds 27,000 on the first day of last year's meeting at Cheltenham; this year he was staring gloomily at a mere pounds 13,000.
Mick Fletcher, alias the Asparagus Kid and an eternal optimist, has noticed that punters, including the famously-reckless contingent from Ireland, are holding back in these hard times.
'People's always got money to gamble,' he said yesterday, 'but they say there's a recession. So nothing's what it was; nothing in the world is what it was. The Irish punters are nothing like they used to be. They're probably here, they're probably in the boozer.'
The Asparagus Kid is a tall, lean man, with a thick Brummie accent, a herring-bone overcoat, cloth cap and blue suede shoes. He was surrounded yesterday by grinning friends making jokes about his wealth. 'First thing you say to him is you're from the Inland Revenue,' one advised me.
Mr Fletcher got the name Asparagus Kid when he was a bookie's runner and tic-tac man and bought bundles of asparagus, 'sale or return', from his pal's Birmingham wholesale market and then 'knocked it all out to the bookies at Cheltenham'. The profit, usually about pounds 700, enabled him to take long holidays.
'A lot of racing's a waste of time between now and Christmas,' the Asparagus Kid said, peeling a couple of pounds 50 notes from a thick wad. 'Ninety per cent of bookies are skint by the time Cheltenham comes. But . . . bookies are survivors.'
Like the race men, Cheltenham itself prefers to celebrate the continuity of an event, which brings in pounds 70m and 60,000 visitors, rather than acknowledge a decline. The town's tourist office says bookings are 20 per cent up on last year without being too specific about 20 per cent of what.
Fifteen years ago demands for beds was so high that the 74- roomed Queen's hotel used to let out 87ft x 3ft sections of its ballroom floor for sleeping spaces. Not any more. 'Demand's fallen off like every golden egg,' Giles Shaw, the hotel's general manager, said. 'I don't think people have the money to spend. The racing world's suffered same as the rest of us.'
Another reason for declining interest may have been a police crackdown, five years ago, on all- night poker schools in the big hotels - and on prostitutes. Also, Irish visitors may have wearied of being stereotyped in English newspapers as itinerant dog trotters with pigs under their arms.
Even now, though, the annual invasion from Ireland remains famous for its good humour and lack of aggravation. Ian Barrett, who used to run a pub just outside town, remembers race week with affection. 'Trying to keep law and order just went out of the windows. Certainly everything was totally relaxed in that you'd see cars parked in the middle of roundabouts. And the Irish would gamble on absolutely anything, like two flies on the wall and which one would fly away first.'
Seen against the Troubles across the Irish Sea, the atmosphere of Cheltenham's Irish week comes as a pleasant surprise to many in the spa town. 'Perhaps we should bottle it,' Giles Shaw said.
The Queen Mother was at the centre of a security scare when a bomb alert delayed her making a presentation to the winners of a race named in her honour. The ceremony, which should have taken place in the winner's enclosure, took place on the steps of the Royal Box following the Coral Cup.
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