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Dawn run that fires the excitement

Greg Wood finds that the Cheltenham experience can be as much about early-morning exercise as late-night sessions
They had spent the previous day travelling, and the night, no doubt, celebrating their arrival. Yet as the mist covering Cheltenham slowly lifted, just before 7.00 yesterday morning, there was not a bleary eye or a miserable face to be seen.

After 51 patient weeks, they could wait no longer and the track had called them from their slumber. By 7.30, there were getting on for 200 people standing in the middle of the course, all but a handful of them Irish.

They watched quietly, a mix of awe and anticipation, as many of the horses who had made the trip with them exercised down the far side. With less than seven hours to the off, the atmosphere of barely-supressed excitement was only a couple of notches short of hysteria.

There were "faces", like J P McManus, the most famous bookie and punter in Ireland, and Timmy Hyde, the veteran bloodstock agent. They may prefer to spend the week in the comfort of a private box, but in the early morning they were standing shoulder to shoulder with punters who will be in Tatts and the Silver Ring.

When McManus paused to give a television interview, he was immediately surrounded, 10 deep, by punters craning desperately to hear his quiet predictions. But then someone spotted Harcon, Ireland's great hope for today's Sun Alliance Chase, and suddenly all the heads turned to watch the big chestnut trot past.

"It's so beautiful here in the morning," one spectator said. "It gets you up, gets you into the mood for later on."

But it was not just the tranquil spectacle of Cheltenham at dawn which had drawn so many people to the track. "A couple of my friends were down here last year and they got a couple of tips which won them some money," another said.

The word this time was for Wylde Hide, in yesterday's Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Chase, but he ran so poorly that a few of yesterday's early risers may think twice before they do so again next year.

The other big whisper, inevitably, was Harcon. Maybe it was the romance of the setting, but Jim Dreaper's chestnut looked magnificent as he kicked in to a gentle canter. Not one of the watchers would hear of defeat.

At 8am, the crowd began to drift away to breakfast. Down near the last fence, a man was gazing up the hill towards the stands. "It must be a hell of a thing for the horses when they set off up there," he murmured. A pause. "It's a hell of a thing for everyone."