Racing: Cheltenham Festival: A country united in the punters' paradise: Giles Smith finds the going on the first day soft to crunchy

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The Independent Online
A SURGE of optimism greeted the first race at Cheltenham yesterday - a fruity roar answering the Tannoy's cry of 'they're off'. The energy had dispersed by the end of that race, though as Arctic Kinsman ran home there was still a handful leaping around, waving rolled-up newspapers, as you do when you have just backed a 50-1 winner.

Cheltenham is above all a punter's festival: not dedicated, like Ascot, to the parading of plumed hats and the Royal Family (though the Queen Mother turned up yesterday and was seen patting horses and jockeys in the winners' enclosure), but a time for getting outrageously lucky at the bookie or rendering oneself horizontal in the Guinness tent. Or preferably (in the ideal Cheltenham) both.

This is, famously, a big Irish occasion. Hence the fence of lucky-heather saleswomen that you have to jump on your way in; hence the availability of the Irish Independent from vendors on every corner. Realising that they intend to invest far more than they can carry in their wallets, the Irish bring their own temporary bank along, the only one on the course.

At the same time, to judge by the volume of Midlands accents hanging in the air, Birmingham is fairly quiet at this time of year as well. And then there are the cockney voices, the Liverpudlians, the West Country burrs - an entire country, it would seem, united in the act of losing money.

And the bookies aren't fussy whose money they take. You get a broad social mix here. At one point, the Tannoy announced that the police wanted two cars moved - a mini and a Daimler - which seemed to make a point.

That said, the crowd divides down familiar lines. Fifty pounds buys a day in the members enclosure where people in high-quality overcoats stand on the trimmed grass which slopes down to the course. You can smell the turf from here, in among the cigar smoke, the perfume and the lobster and oysters (Irish rock oysters, naturally) gently cooking in the Arkle Bar.

Pay pounds 20 and you come down a class to Tattersalls where the bookies gather on an expanse of concrete but where, nonetheless, it is still possible to choose one of a selection of speciality sausages to put in your hotdog. A mere pounds 8, meanwhile, takes you into the Foster's enclosure located, not insignificantly, on the other side of the tracks.

Here, on a slab of rain- sluiced gravel, sits the Festival's largest congregation of bookies, many of them with implausible names. (It really was possible yesterday to lay a wager with Kevin Wager).

Behind the stand, in the Foster's bar, the going was soft to crunchy, depending on whether you were stepping on discarded burger meat or a split plastic beer cup. The place was crammed tight, too, so that the odds on making it to the front of the beer queue before the end of the Festival were incalculable.

Elsewhere, any number of side attractions were trying to keep you away from the racing. A New Orleans-style jazz band sauntered noisily through the crowds behind the stand. A man in a trilby played Irish jigs on a heavily amplified accordion. And in the executive hospitality tents, entire organisations had lunch and then tea before wondering idly whether they might look out and attempt to spot a horse on their way back to the car park.

Perhaps theirs was the safest tactic financially. As the afternoon wore on, the ground became ever more thickly carpeted with torn-up betting tickets, testifying to the old saying: you win some, but you lose a lot more.

(Photograph omitted)