James Lawton: This glorious Festival acts as a magnet to all those seeking affirmation of life

"Cheltenham is separate from anything else you might experience in sport"
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Cheltenham comes around quickly, but then so does life, and in both cases some of us rarely get round to analysing quite why we enjoy it so much.

The great horse racing is there, for a finite number of occasions each early spring and so, like climbers responding to the existence of a mountain, we go to it, hopeful of hauling ourselves to a peak of good judgement at the betting window but rarely unconscious of the fact that the chances are we will fall in a heap on the other side,

The betting, anyway, is pretty much beside the point.

You don't go to Cheltenham to get rich, even for a few days. You go to remind yourself that you are still alive.

Maybe Jimmy Nesbitt is in less need of such a jolt than most of us, given the tumultuous course of his acting career, but then even such a committed sports aficionado required a little time to weigh the meaning of the greatest equine sports event of them all as he boarded the train for the West Country yesterday.

This year the man from Coleraine carries a special edge of anticipation as his six-year-old Riverside Theatre goes today in the Arkle. The impressive young chaser, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty, carries the colours of Nesbitt's revered Manchester United but even with such a proprietary interest there is always a point at Cheltenham when partisanship yields to something that runs deeper than the imperatives of winning and losing.

"That is maybe it," says Nesbitt, "that's why Cheltenham is so unique, why it is separate from anything else you might experience in sport. The Irish may come in their thousands, but unlike football it can never be a tribal event.

"Most of all it is people coming together; there is no separation of class. In the end everyone is united by the majesty of what they are seeing, the courage of the horses and the men who ride them, the beauty of the animals, their incredible strength, and their fragility.

"I suppose having your own horse creates other emotions too. You worry about the welfare of everyone concerned, you hope to win, of course, but there are other considerations you see with maybe a clearer focus. You certainly see the dangers more clearly and the degree of courage that is required in the riding and the work and the knowledge that goes into preparing every horse that goes out there.

"I started going to Cheltenham as a lad with my mates. I loved it then, probably without knowing quite why. Now I know some of the mysteries, the feeling is no less intense. For a little time you are part of something which has no segregation; everybody is in it together, the trainers, the jockeys, the owners, the punters. And then there are the horses, the magnificent horses, which we glory in, worry over and wish we could always share their courage."

If Nesbitt makes a hymn to Cheltenham, it is one which we know will course through so many thousands of veins today and then swell inexorably on the approach of the race of races on Friday, the Gold Cup which pits the sublime Kauto Star against his potentially relentless next-door neighbour Denman.

Cheltenham is many things to many people but more than anything it is liberation.

It is the bunch of Irishmen who went directly from the bar to the hotel room where the priest was saying an early morning Mass for the jocks and the hosses and a good week of sport, and one of his congregation slept seamlessly after earlier sliding from the stool on which he had give a word perfect reprise of Michael O'Hehir's calling of Dawn Run's miraculous run on to the rising ground with Jonjo O'Neill on his back.

It will always be Arkle, striding so untouchably into history.

It is J P McManus walking to his box, the epicentre of every betting surge. The man from Limerick carries more than an aura, it is the certainty that of all men at Cheltenham he has the shrewdest idea of what he is doing. The true addiction, he said recently, is not gambling but winning.

It is the stupendous promise and intrigue of Kauto Star, a horse that, with his predecessor Best Mate, may not have surpassed the legacy of Arkle, because you cannot surpass the unsurpassable, but has done the next best, evoked it with quite brilliant performance.

It was the late Sir Clement Freud being pummelled to the floor by one large and exuberant spectator clutching a winning ticket and a whole battery of binoculars, and then rising with his jaw set and swinging a very passable left hook and right cross before being told he had wrongly identified the culprit. "Still, I feel better," he said. Freud was somewhat separate from proceedings for a little while, but not for long.

Nor will be Jimmy Nesbitt today, except for those dry-mouth moments when Riverside Theatre, named for the hometown auditorium where he first stepped on to the boards as the Artful Dodger, is launched at the fences and then, God willing, is brought to that rising ground which investigates the courage of every horse and the resolve of every rider.

"It's true," he admitted, "I will be more nervous than ever before but I don't expect to go without too much sleep. There are ways of inducing it and one of them is called Guinness."

So it's good morning, Cheltenham – would you mind just waiting while we get something to steady our nerves?

Mourinho's currency still in demand

Jose Mourinho might be said to be fighting for his football life at Stamford Bridge tonight but then who would back against his survival?

Win or lose, Mourinho has established an image that will serve him well enough even if Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea overturn the 2-1 defeat at San Siro, as form and instinct say they should.

With the possibility of some financial infusion at Anfield, and the surely inevitable exhaustion of belief in Rafa Benitez, Liverpool are one club who would pursue an interest in Mourinho that they first declared when he won the European Cup with Porto six years ago. Manchester United, too, are said to see him as the leading contender whenever Sir Alex Ferguson decides it is time to walk away.

Whatever you may think of Mourinho, and some of his tactics, there is one unassailable truth. It is that a current of electricity will be running down the King's Road tonight. It will be supplied, once again, by Jose Mourinho.

Beckham's tenacity and status will shield him from the very worst

However you rate the validity of David Beckham's now shattered candidacy for a place in England's World Cup squad in South Africa, it is impossible not to acknowledge the tenacity with which he pursued it – or the degree of his pain yesterday as he flew to Finland for an operation which is unlikely to change the reality that his playing career is, practically speaking, over.

Consolation may be thin on the ground now for a player who had been given so many reasons to believe that football, and its accompanying and unprecedented celebrity, had given him at least part ownership of the world. But he will surely take some comfort from reports that Fabio Capello may still take him to South Africa for the morale-boosting value of his presence.

Capello is no sentimentalist and for him to see value in such a move is a tribute to the extent of Beckham's hold on the imagination of so much of the football public. Whether the rest of the squad will feel quite the same way is maybe another matter.

In the meantime, however, few are likely to dispute the fact that even a stricken David Beckham is protected from at least some of the harshest consequences of a trade that will always be littered with the cruellest hazard.

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