Cheltenham Diary: Oakley rounds up tale of the Man who picked 399-1 shot

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The Independent Online

Robin Oakley is better known as the former political editor of the BBC; the successor of John Cole and the predecessor of Andrew Marr. But he is here in another guise – as the chronicler of the Festival's first century.

Oakley was in a marquee signing copies of The Cheltenham Festival: A Centenary History and took time out to explain how the 18-month task had been the most enjoyable of his garlanded career. "I've been like a child let loose in a sweet shop," said Oakley, who recently retired as the European political editor of CNN. "I found the day job was interfering with my racing."

His tome is a richly colourful read. Oakley has concentrated on the characters and his favourite tale in the book concerns the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Remittance Man. Nicky Henderson's charge was a notorious box-walker and was famously calmed down by his permanent companion – Nobby the sheep. "But Nobby was sent home for a holiday, a new sheep was introduced and Remittance Man picked it up and threw it out of the box," said Oakley. "Repeatedly. Nicky had to go back to his father's herd and try to pick out Nobby from 400. Obviously, no joy. So all they could do was ride Remittance Man into the field. And 399 ran away and one stayed."

In his researches, Oakley was struck by a culture shift. "There was report in The Sporting Life, in the Thirties when Golden Miller had won one of his five Gold Cups. It said something like, "The crowd had good sport yesterday, with the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle. But, of course, the real race takes place today – the National Hunt Chase." It was an amateur race, and still is, but the prize-money then was more than the Gold Cup. That sums up the attitude change."

Safety first in a risky environment

Amid the barrage of free bets, enhanced odds, free scarves even, being offered to punters by those ever-generous, ever-selfless bookmakers at this year's Festival, a novel gift stood out. A firm purporting to be "the first social betting community" – as if there could ever be such a thing – was handing out condoms, emblazoned with the rather witty tag line "Only gamble with". Punters, however, are warned to read the manufacturer's short print. Which may or may not say: "There's no such thing as a certainty."

Cecil's first visit all in a good cause

Of all the Festival newcomers this week – Robbie Savage being one – the sight of Henry Cecil is perhaps the most noticeable. Incredibly, the great Flat trainer has never been here before, not even as an enthusiast.

He is breaking his duck with a runner in tomorrow's charity race, in aid of Cancer Research UK. Cecil, who lost his twin David to the disease, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2006 and, in a moving interview with The Festival magazine, details his battle and how he resurrected his career in the midst of chemotherapy.

McCririck's unexpected identity crisis

It took until just 12.30pm, an hour before the first race, for John McCririck to impose his inimitable presence.

Last year, the Channel 4 "betting expert", otherwise known as the Lard of the Ring, managed to upset the entire weighing room with his criticisms of Dunguib's jockey, Brian O'Connell. This year, his target was rather less lofty.

Instead, it was a young, female security guard on the minimum wage. She dared to do her job and ask to see McCririck's badge as he walked from Tattersalls into the Club Enclosure. He proceeded to embark on a finger-pointing rant, which can be summed up: "Don't you know who I am?"

Oblivious to the irony, he called her "rude", before waltzing through – still without showing his badge.

"I don't know who he is, actually," commented the stunned steward. Her male colleague chimed in: "We've been told we have to check everyone's badge. Even if they are the Queen. I also don't know who he is, either. Should I?"

No, you shouldn't. In this case, ignorance is indeed bliss.