Hard times no reason to rely on Festival bankers

Ticket sales slump as recession-hit faithful head for jump racing's greatest carnival looking to beat the blues
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For those taking a dolorous relish in every intimation of economic apocalypse, this year there are indices of doom even at the joyous rite of spring that is the Cheltenham Festival. Tickets, for instance, remain available not just today but for the rest of the week – even for the Gold Cup on Friday, if you book ahead – while the timbre of the crowd will assuredly be diluted by the absence of many Irish voices this time. In recent years, flights into Bristol during Cheltenham week have come at an exorbitant premium; this time round, many regulars would sooner cross the Irish Sea by coracle than fork out €50.

Yet those with the resources – moral as well as financial – to persevere in their pilgrimage will be making an investment far more calculated than any they might undertake on the horses themselves. For if this carnival has ever meant anything, then it must now stand as one of the last, critical redoubts against the tide of despondency.

"Jumping people, they just love the game, don't they?" says Jonjo O'Neill, as the rider of Dawn Run a man forever associated with one of the iconic Cheltenham moments. "It's just a fantastic atmosphere, a magical place. It'll take your mind off losing all your money – off everything. As long as I'm around, I hope I can make it."

Even in years of ease, of course, a disapproving majority would never have dared to come to Cheltenham to seize the day. But that is because they never knew the difference between the epicurean and the sybarite. The latter has lost all purpose. But the former, being detached from petty, worldly cares, can still come here and defy the new miserabilism. Remember that even those who have always gambled rather more than they could afford usually did not do so out of avarice. Rather they had a wholesome irreverence for money.

And, to be fair, none has ever had a greater wariness than the Cheltenham punter of the empty promises of a "banker".

By frequently delivering, but as often proving fraudulent, "the Cheltenham banker" long ago taught caution to investors who might otherwise have been vulnerable to the merchant or corporate variety. The Cheltenham banker is the horse identified by punters as the bedrock of their week, one that can be backed at short odds, without flinching. Some of the Festival greats – like the multiple champion hurdlers, Istabraq or See You Then – became so cherished largely because of their dependability as "bankers".

As luck should have it, this year there seem to be a hazardous surfeit of bankers. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all that, and there is going to be some death-or-glory stuff in the ring this week. Betting on all five of the open championship races is dominated by a hot favourite: Binocular today; Master Minded, who has the shortest price of the week over his head, tomorrow; Voy Por Ustedes and Kasbah Bliss on Thursday; and (drum roll please) Kauto Star on Friday. An accumulator linking all five would pay the thick end of 50-1, but there are sound reasons for that. Last year, in fact, only two favourites won all week. And this is before you take into consideration such white-knuckle rides as Cousin Vinny, the biggest Irish fancy of the meeting, who happens to contest its very first race.

The fate of many punters at the 2009 Festival will have been irrevocably decided within a couple of hours today, both Cousin Vinny and Binocular having already been impiously described by different commentators as "the new Istabraq". It could be a long way back if both get turned over.

Like Istabraq, Binocular is owned by the Irish speculator, JP McManus. He has horses with dozens of trainers, and sometimes seems almost too loyal for his own good, but is certainly finding his reward in an unlikely partnership with the patrician Englishman, Nicky Henderson. Binocular jumps his hurdles in the twinkle of an eye, and few would countenance defeat in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle but for the forecast of overnight rain, which might just blunt his pace. After all, his one defeat to date was here as a novice, when he had travelled best turning in but did not seem to last up the hill.

Henderson, however, does not share the consensus that Binocular has stamina limitations, instead suspecting that Tony McCoy simply hit the front too soon last year, causing his mount to idle. "None of us knew an awful lot about him then," he reasoned. "It was only his third run, and the first time Tony had sat on him. The horse still got up the hill, and was only a baby – he's stronger now, and Tony knows him an awful lot better. I think you'll find him waiting a bit longer this time. You've seen the way he's ridden him since. I mean it was scary, the way he rode him at Ascot – how much rope was he going to give them? I can't see us giving Celestial Halo 30 lengths at the top of the hill. But I don't see him taking him on before the last, either. He's got a very cool person on board." However the bankers fare, penury no doubt awaits some punters – just as, this year, it has kept many away altogether. On the other had, those who have stayed at home through cold feet will never know what serendipitous securities might otherwise have come their way. The abiding spirit of Cheltenham, after all, is survival.

We saw that last year, when gales caused the cancellation of racing on the second afternoon and in turn, thanks to a spot of Blitz spirit, produced epic cards for the two following days. But every year brings its own attrition, not least since the meeting's extension to a gruelling fourth day in 2005. Sooner rather than later, of course, that innovation may come to be seen as just another example of discredited boom-town economics.

Either way, however, the people who keep coming will be the sort who were stoically panning rivers, long before any gold rush, and persevering long after all the gangsters and harlots had fled for some new Eldorado. The diehards will always identify with someone like Jonjo, nowadays a trainer and dependably artful in his preparation of his Cheltenham horses. Or someone like Terry Biddlecombe, whose riding days go back to an earlier epoch still, but whose partnership with Henrietta Knight was in the meantime rewarded by three Gold Cups with Best Mate.

Hen and Terry are back today with one of the favourites for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy in Calgary Bay. "There have been plenty of changes over the years but the atmosphere remains the same," Terry says. "It's still about good horses, good racing, good company. This time, I suppose, people might already be skint even before they start. But it won't stop them coming."

The Name Game: Running today

*Cousin Vinny (1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle) Vincent Gambini is a Brooklyn auto mechanic turned lawyer, the eponymous character played by Joe Pesci in a 1992 comedy film.

*Torphichen (1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle)

A small village, founded round a Knights Hospitaller preceptory, in West Lothian, named from the Gaelic for raven's hill. In 1298 William Wallace held his last convention of barons there.

*Calgary Bay (2.05 Irish Independent Arkle Trophy)

Bay on Isle Of Mull from which Calgary in Alberta, Canada, was named by settlers in 1876.

*Planet Of Sound (2.05 Irish Independent Arkle)

The name of a track on the album Trompe Le Monde, by the US alternative rock band The Pixies.

*Alph (3.20 Champion Hurdle)

The sacred river in Xanadu that ran "through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea" in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium- induced visionary poem Kubla Khan.

*Garde Champetre (4.00 Cross Country Handicap Chase)

A low-ranking police officer in France, assigned to duties in the countryside under the control of the local mayor.

Sue Montgomery