Almanack: Stout hearts, empty pockets

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The Independent Online
FROM the approaches to the course, where ticket touts and dodgy shamrock purveyors attempt to fleece the public before they have even seen a horse, to Tattersalls at the heart of the course where ranks of bookmakers wait with baited briefcases, the Cheltenham Festival is all about money.

Michael Donovan of the Allied Irish Bank was one of the most important figures at the meeting: his makeshift branch provided the raw material for the celebrated 'Irish Challenge'. Was he busy this year? 'Oh, we're very busy, yes. You see, the first two races of the meeting didn't do the Irish any favours. But you wait until St Patrick's Day (also Gold Cup Day). Oh yes, when the Irish fans lose we'll be busy all right.'

Things went wrong for Mr Donovan, and right for the Irish punters, when Danoli won the first race on Wednesday. The horse had been regarded as the banker of the meeting - one punter had pounds 20,000 on at 2-1 - and the muttering circle of journalists in the press-room bar, whose official function is to log the major bets of the day, reckoned that pounds 157,000 had been taken out of the betting ring on that one race alone.

Most of the money was converted into liquid form in short order: the crowd in front of the Jameson's Hot Irish Whiskey Bar was never fewer than 20 drinkers deep. But there were other suitors for the punters' funds in the tented village next to the paddock, home of Foxy Folk, which offers Reynard-

related silverware, Good Going (ladies clothing), Racing Plates of Great Britain (used horseshoes tastefully mounted as wall plaques) and many similar emporia.

In the shadow of a spectacular merry-go-round stood the Garrard stall, where flush racegoers could buy gold and silver salt and pepper pots in the shape of jockey's boots (pounds 545), or a bronze sculpture of the American jockey Willie Shoemaker on Ferdinand (pounds 22,985). 'We tend to do most of our business at Cheltenham with successful punters,' Steven Sanson, Garrard's man at the Festival, told Almanack. 'It's nice, if they've got lucky, to buy a litttle something as a celebration.' How had business been this year? 'Well . . . a little difficult with the funfair, to be honest,' Mr Sanson said, loudly. 'It's hard to hold a conversation. I find the tunes ringing around my head in the car on the way home.'

Behind the genteel Tented Village is the Guinness Village, where the funfair cannot be heard above the yells and whoops of determined drinkers. Late on St Patrick's Day, Almanack's man inveigled his way behind the main bar and found Peter Whitby, the manager, sorting bricks of notes thick enough to make a bookie weep. 'It's been an unbelievable year,' he said, exhausted. In front of him, blonde Guinness girls sprinted from tap to tap, splashing in dark brown rivers of stout. Mr Whitby surveyed the baying hordes on the far side of the bar. 'They're good characters,' he said, 'and this is certainly the place at Cheltenham for atmosphere. But you learn not to listen to the tips.'

Guinness consumption at Cheltenham had matched the Irish mood: 58 kegs on the tough first day, 62 (courtesy of Danoli) on Wednesday and between 80 and 90 to celebrate St Patrick's Day. There are 904 pints in a keg. And at pounds 1.90 a pint, it's easy to see where most of the money goes at the Cheltenham Festival.

(Photograph omitted)