Racing / Cheltenham Festival: Potent mix of Christmas and the Olympics: To those in the know, the next three days at Cheltenham will be the best of the year. Greg Wood explains why

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IT STARTS in early September. A young horse wins a small race at a flyblown country course. 'We think he's very good,' the trainer says afterwards. Deep breath. 'In fact, we're hoping he might even be good enough to go to Cheltenham.'

To an offhand observer of horse racing, aware of nothing more than the Derby and Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival, which opens this afternoon, might appear to be just another race meeting. For followers of jumps racing, though, it is the only meeting.

After almost 2,500 races during the bitterest months of the year, the National Hunt season condenses to three days, and 20 races, in March. Nine of those events confer championship status on their winner, including steeplechasing's premier event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It is jump racing's Olympics, but it is also much, much more.

'So many people I know see Cheltenham as an adult Christmas,' Stuart Barnes, the England rugby union stand-off, said yesterday. 'They get really excited about it, and one of my best mates will be really disappointed by now because in a few days it will all be over. We have a saying in our part, if you're not at Cheltenham, you're dead.'

The first thing that strikes the newcomer to Cheltenham is the beauty of the setting. The surrounding Cotswolds create a natural amphitheatre, while the long, uphill run to the line from the last fence all but guarantees close finishes. Time and again, clear leaders begin to tire and falter just a few strides from the post, a pursuer finds a second wind, and as the lead shrinks, the noise of the crowd rises towards hysteria. During the rest of the year, many National Hunt races are won by 30 lengths or more but at last year's Festival, if Montelado's 12- length victory in the opener is ignored, the average winning distance was just one and a half.

Then there is the unique social mix. Whereas Royal Ascot segregates the well-heeled from the unwashed, Cheltenham is a glorious melting pot of nationalities and social backgrounds. From rural Ireland come whole villages: the priest, the publican and everyone in between. For many it is their only holiday, and it will take more than a run of bad results to stop them enjoying it. Some barely sleep. With its gambling, drinking and riotous living, Cheltenham week can become a modern-day Festival of Bacchus.

'It's the chemistry which makes it special,' Edward Gillespie, the racecourse manager, said. 'The mix of people from all walks of life is almost unique at this level.' Barnes agrees. 'It's a great social occasion, people can be as eccentric or conservative as they like and no-one seems to care,' he said.

There is little conservatism when it comes to the betting. More cash circulates in the betting market at Cheltenham even than at Royal Ascot, and Stephen Little, one of the bravest on-course bookmakers, regularly lays single bets that would pay out pounds 100,000. Needless to say, he generally keeps rather more, for the Festival can play tricks on the canniest punter.

Good horses are offered at big prices, such is the strength of the competition, but others which appeared to have little form may suddenly find it when their big moment arrives. There will always be a few 'skinners' for the bookmakers, races won by rank outsiders which allow them to keep all but a fraction of the backers' stakes. There can be some very big winners. Two years ago Richard Mussell, a cleaner from Havant, found five winners on Gold Cup day, tied them together in an accumulator bet, staked pounds 8.14, and received pounds 567,066.25 in return.

Those less fortunate than Mussell tend to carry on regardless. 'People go there expecting to lose money,' Barnes said. 'Anything can happen, but in a world where everyone is so uptight about doing things properly and worried about the mortgage, it's nice for a couple of days to really have a blast, to act in an utterly immature way and not care.'

It does not stop with the racing. The Queen's Hotel, the finest in town, is the focus for the Irish racegoers. The bar never closes and only players with a wallet to match their nerve sit down at one of the card schools.

Jonjo O'Neill, who partnered Dawn Run to success in the Gold Cup, said: 'Cheltenham is just magic stuff, everybody meets up with everybody and there's all the usual crack.'

O'Neill's Gold Cup success on Dawn Run, the last by an Irish- trained runner, was one of the great moments in Cheltenham history, as a popular favourite prevailed after an epic battle up the hill.

Desert Orchid received an equally tearful reception after winning the same race three years later, while others still remember Arkle, the greatest chaser of them all, during the 1960s, or even Golden Miller, winner of five consecutive Gold Cups in the 1930s.

And after every Festival there will be a moment of dramatic loss or courageous achievement to stay in the minds of racegoers as they travel home to prepare for the next one.

And some never leave. A few years ago, after the last race of the meeting, a small group of Irishmen walked unsteadily up the course and sprinkled an urn of ashes on the turf at the winning line. 'It was what he always wanted,' one was heard to say. Many thousands of people in the West country this week would agree.

(Photograph omitted)