Racing: Craic falls flat in Guinness Village

Excitement makes slow start in Prestbury Park's tented bars, reports Jamie Corrigan
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The Independent Online

Michael in the Arkle Bar hadn't seen him, nor had Joe in the Golden Miller and it was only Tommy in the Cottage Rake who had any news at all. It did happen to be something of an exclusive, however. "He's a fraud, I'm telling you," he barked. "That's no proper priest - I know him. His brother's one, mind. He simply borrows a robe, gets an upgrade on the plane over, muscles his way on to the telly and from then on never puts hand in his pocket or whatever they have on those robes."

That's one Cheltenham myth debunked then - the drunken priest. In fact, on sober investigation the apologues are harder to make a case for than the horses on the track, the tall tales more difficult to stand up than the sozzled in the Guinness Village.

Whoops, there I go, pouring my own black stuff on the legends. No, in truth, even by end of sports, there wasn't anyone that sozzled in the Guinness Village. There was a stag party in fancy dress, though, but they were far too upright and far too sharp to be classed in the inebriated.

"Don't go near him," shouted the wag in a doctor's coat, pointing at his pal decked out as a chicken. "I swore I just heard him cough." They were having the time of their lives, but very few others seemed to be. It was one of those hands-in-the-pockets days, not simply because of the blasts of icy wind, but because there was nothing much to get all sweaty-palmed about.

Sure, there was the favourite winning the Champion Hurdle, the unveiling of the Best Mate statue, a few classic rides from Ruby, but regardless of all this there was something strangely flat about the opening day. The traditional roar to greet the beginning of the first race veered towards the mouse, not the lion, while the betting arena was bustling without ever jumping.

The jockeys called the ground "on the dead side of good". It also served as the perfect description of the atmosphere. Why? Well let us be kind and suggest that the Festival from now on will be a slow-burner. The fourth-day extension was sure to dilute the magic and it must be hoped that come Friday the fuse will burn through to the explosive stuff.

In large part, that will be down to the Irish contingent who were perhaps pacing their thirst - not to mention their tonsils - for St Patrick's Day. There are plenty of myths surrounding the Blarney Army but one thing was for certain. The customs did not stop any of them, as was threatened, to check they were carrying no more than £5,000 in currency and, even if they did, it blessedly never got as far as the Marigolds.

Not that it would have been the first time they had reverted to such underhand tactics. Yesterday, Joe recalled 1986 when Dawn Run brought the house down. "In those days you were only allowed to bring over 500 punts," he recounted. "And they were very strict about it. The custom boys even came to the track to spy on us and d'you know what they did when that grand mare won? They only followed the hats that were thrown in the air and nicked their owners on the spot."

Another old chestnut? Perhaps. But they were for so long the Festival's lifeblood. And Prestbury Park might do well to remember the unsanitised gaiety that once pumped it.

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