Cheltenham this week celebrates a century of hosting the National Hunt Festival and very noisy those celebrations will be, too. Yet the manner in which the four days will be depicted by one section of racing enthusiasts – and I use that term loosely – you could be forgiven for thinking this has been the equine version of The Hundred Years War.
Man versus horse, man versus bookmaker, man versus temptation, man versus the odds. This isn't about fun, they groan. This is a fight of stamina, a fight for survival even, a fight still to be standing come Friday evening. Fortunately, you only need to walk around Prestbury Park and count the smiles, if not the Guinness moustaches, to realise these "need-to-get-a-lifers" are outnumbered.
Yet it isn't just we thrill-seekers who will roll our eyes at all this self-flagellating. The addicts are confused, too. The real addicts, that is. You know, that old man who shuffles to the betting shop as part of his everyday life. Pint of milk, loaf of bread, swear at the kids on the corner, William Hill until the Legion opens. To them Cheltenham is just another race meeting, like Royal Ascot, like Cartmel. My grandfather used to say about the Derby: "It's just the 3.40 at Epsom." My grandfather did not see Cheltenham as a trial to be survived. He had a whole bloody lifetime to survive.
But then, this breed – which may be dying, but has probably merely restationed itself in front of a laptop – are ultra-cynical and harrumph when "fans" say they want see Kauto Star win simply because they admire him as an animal. Never was this more borne out than in the 1989 Gold Cup. One journalist, summing up the mood as Desert Orchid overhauled Yahoo up that notorious hill, wrote thus: "Even the punters who had backed Yahoo suddenly switched their allegiance on the run-in. What was written on their betting slip proved no match for what was written on their heart."
Erm, right. My recollection is slightly different. All I remember is standing in a Coral office and a chap leaping on the chair, screaming: "Fall, yer grey bastard!"
Of course, the mood was different at the course itself. It always is. To the overwhelming majority there, this isn't, as the old tale purports, about the bloke who turns to his mate on the way in saying: "Christ, I hope I break even today. I could do with the money." This is about having a few quid, a few drinks, a few laughs. But more than anything to feel a part of the party.
And there's the rub with Cheltenham, the reason why the bookies ramp up the hype with all the vigour of Del Boy at Peckham Market. The desire to backt a winner at a Festival is so pronounced, the urge "to feel a part of it" is so pronounced, you end up backing those manufactured "sure things" at absurd prices. The bookies have us by the Barney Curleys.
Again, Dessie provides a fine example. In 1990 he went back to retain his title with Dessie-mania at its peak. Dessie masks, Dessie T-shirts, Dessie Scarfs... legend says there was even one sign on the road to the course that day advertising "Dessie manure for sale". The propaganda was impossible to avoid. We were there for Dessie's encore.
I went with a friend. He was an apprentice, I was a student. We had saved up, our pockets were full, we were Robert Sangster for a day. A few hours later we were Rab C Nesbitt; skint, hitching home. On the train up, I'd read out the by now infamous intro in a national newspaper and we were hooked. "Thoughts of defeat for any reason other than a freak mishap cannot be seriously entertained," wrote the racing correspondent. "Any analysis of the race must logically be confined not so much to whether Desert Orchid can capture a second Gold Cup but by how far he will win it and who will be second."
But then my pal opened the Western Mail, read the column by Cliff Morgan, the revered rugby player and commentator, who passed on a tip for the rank Welsh outsider, Norton's Coin. And so the greatest upset in the history of Cheltenham and our friendship unfolded.
He was there with his last £60 ready to put on £30 each-way at 200-1. In a flash, I snatched the notes from his hand, ran up the bookies' line and, together with my remaining £40, slapped a "oner" on Dessie. At 10-11. No need to recount what conspired, or that I proceeded to be chased around Prestbury Park for the next hour like Norton's Coin on ephedrine.
Looking back, it wasn't simply about the £7,500 my friend would have collected (although, it would have been nice to travel home in something plusher than the back of a transit). It was so much more than that. The great denial of a piece of Welsh sporting folklore. It would have been less a case of Max Boyce's "I Know 'Cos I Was There" and more "I Know, 'Cos I Was There... And Won A Year's Earnings".
Yes, it is fair to say my friend hasn't forgotten. Every morning on Gold Cup day, I receive a text message. It is four letters long and all too descriptive. If it's any consolation whatsoever, 21 years on I still feel a complete and utter one. Just another victim of that notorious Cheltenham thrill.Reuse content