When Ruby Walsh brought in Big Buck's yesterday for the World Hurdle title and that of the first odds-on favourite to come home in two and half days of betting ring attrition, he was wearing the colours of his owners, the black, white and red of the Stewart family, rather than merely the red and white of the Red Cross. But there was really no doubt about it.
He was riding for humanity. You could have heard the roar at the other end of the Cotswolds. Someone was saying here the other day that the betting is, when the tents finally fold after four days of ferocious action, in some ways beside the point. However, someone here might as well have been smoking funny cigarettes when asserting that the real point of it all is to remind yourself that you were still alive.
Wally Pyrah, now a betting consultant for the Racing Post after several decades working for leading bookmakers, spent some time reaching for the right word to describe the slaughter. Maybe he was looking for something not too stark. "Well," he said, "I suppose there is only one word for it. It is 'bloodbath'."
Even the great J P McManus has been able to deliver only flesh wounds as bookmaking profits, assuming a last day mostly triumphant for outsiders, soar beyond an estimated £600m mark. Most of McManus's winnings came from ante-post betting when his Champion Hurdle winner Binocular was a prohibitive favourite. The other day the man from Limerick issued the philosophical profundity that the real addiction was not betting but winning. These last few days it has been about as easy to acquire as a fascination for plane spotting.
"I've been coming here for the best of 30 years," Pyrah said, "I can't believe it has ever been so tough. If Big Buck's had gone down it would have been easy to imagine a mass exodus. The high rollers have come back, in contrast to last year, but there is a limit to their impact, and I think most of the ordinary punters are just about tapped out. Thinking back over the last three days, there has been scarcely a shout when they come over the last fence. Maybe it will change tomorrow if Kauto Star comes in as the odds-on favourite and national hero, but but I think the crowd are just in the mood to fear the worst in any situation."
Right up to Walsh's necessarily energetic effort to hold off 16-1 shot Time for Rupert, there had been scarcely a hint of a hats-in-the-air moment. Had the excellent challenge to Big Buck's gained a stride or two at the finish most punters would certainly have been in the mood to sue for surrender.
The tide flowed against them powerfully from the Festival's first race, when Dunguib, at 4-5, was supposed to give backers a guaranteed foundation to their week's effort. Instead, Menorah was driven home at 12-1 and Dunguib finished third. There were other atrocities on that first day, notably the 33-1 triumph of Chief Dan George over 9-2 favourite The Package.
When A P McCoy rode masterfully to bring in Binocular (9-1) over 11-4 favourite Go Native a certain bleakness of spirit was beginning to envelop the valley like a malignant mist. There was a ripple of Irish celebration when Weapon's Amnesty became the nation's first winner of St Patrick's Day on Wednesday, but then betting blood runs as thickly as any on some days and there was growling over the fact that the winner came in over 2-1 favourite Punchestowns.
"I suppose it was around then," Pyrah said, "that the bookmakers first began to believe that Cheltenham 2010 was the time when all their Christmases were rolled together."
Mike Dillon of Ladbrokes gave the bloodletting a certain philosophical perspective. "We have to remember that before every meeting the question is whether the jockeys and the trainers and the horses and the punters will get the trip. Let's face it, the bookmakers always get the trip. Yes, it has turned out well for the punters but there is another day to go, and, certainly, Kauto Star can bring a little life to the punters."
Meanwhile, one young man who fervently wishes to remain anonymous has been advised that it might be a good idea to leave town while he is, in the circumstances, spectacularly ahead. While all were falling around him, and his ears were filled with terrible anguish, he picked out that 33-1 shot Chief Dan George, Sanctuaire (4-1) and Great Endeavour (18-1) ,and had several doubles and trebles. The result is that he leaves here with sufficient winnings to put down a substantial deposit on his first house. Perhaps he should also make a donation to the Red Cross.