Racing: No more rancid cheeseburgers as new Festival delivers goods

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The Independent Online

OK, joke over. Come on, what have you done with it? Where have you hidden that sporting event we all used to know as the Cheltenham Festival? It's no longer where it used to be, that's for sure. It was always an hour's taxi ride from Cheltenham Spa train station. But now it's 15 minutes. By bus. With seats.

OK, joke over. Come on, what have you done with it? Where have you hidden that sporting event we all used to know as the Cheltenham Festival? It's no longer where it used to be, that's for sure. It was always an hour's taxi ride from Cheltenham Spa train station. But now it's 15 minutes. By bus. With seats.

Not only that, but when we pulled up at the place that was supposedly Prestbury Park yesterday we didn't have to wait 10 minutes to get off. In fact, we disembarked in the time it takes to rip up a betting slip - 0.84sec if you're interested (or 0.2sec if Carberry's riding it) - as our vehicle was allowed to reverse into its space without 1,000 punters perfecting their impression of the suffragette Emily Davison.

The mind flashed back to same time, same place last year when we were kept on the bus for what seemed a McCririck lunchtime as they desperately tried to clear the racegoers charging across our parking spot. An Irish voice (surprise, surprise) boomed out from the back of the battered old charabanc: "For the love of God, hurry up. It didn't take this long to reverse my vasectomy, I tell you."

Ah, it's grand to relay those tales now, just as it's always been grand to relay those "Uncle Albert" tales of suffering for our Coors, of "haemorrhaging money", of watching a drunken priest spilling his holy water all over your ankles in the China Wall that lines up outside the gents, of six-hour journeys back to London (via Birmingham and Newport and Didcot Parkway and Peru).

But, in the cold light of St Patrick's Day, when you're there at the new "four-day" Cheltenham, when you're not having to order your pint 20 minutes before you've finished the last one, not having to jam a rancid cheeseburger down your gullet at 10.30am (the only window you have for lunch), not having to resort to the utterly surreal act of betting on your phoneline because of the human shield protecting the betting ring, then nostalgic stories you might be able to tell some day suddenly lose all their currency.

You've at last discovered that it's actually possible to enjoy yourself in the here and now at the Festival. Well, fancy that. And how we enjoyed ourselves yesterday. True, there were the usual sickening sights provided by the over-imbibed to gladden the soul. A female colleague told gleefully of a scene in the ladies, where three sets of stilettos poked from under a cubicle and two voices could be heard urging - "Come on Tanya, you'll be better once it's all up." "Go on Tazza, jam those fingers down yer throat." Class, sheer class.

But hey, it's not the opera we're talking here, or even the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It's the Cheltenham Festival, and whatever the organisers deign - extend it to two weeks, shrink it to two hours - it always blessedly will be. You'll forever hear the crowd rise as one when it greets a new champion such as Inglis Drever, even though an awful lot less than even a 10th of the hat-throwers had backed this stayer of the future. Why do we cheer? Because it's Cheltenham, it happens once a year, and we can go back to screaming unrepeatables at the nag that dares beat ours come Uttoxeter tomorrow.

Yes, some will claim - and will go on claiming, no doubt, with an argument that probably has no more substantial basis than a blank Yankee - that it's been a glaring failure for Cheltenham's fourth day, that the crowds have been down, that the Tote's takings have taken a nosedive, that the Cheltenham elixir has been fatally diluted.

Well, perhaps. And perhaps this expansion will add up to nothing more on the cynic's spreadsheet than us poor punters losing yet more of the crinkly stuff we can hardly afford, while being taken for a ride that seems cruel even in sport's cruellest game. But that's our choice - as it's always been - and at least we can do it now at Cheltenham with a smile on our face, without a stinking armpit in our nostril.

So don't blame the organisers, for they are just following a truism that has been good advice for centuries. You can lead a horse-follower to Guinness, you know. And boy, can you make him drink.

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