Picture Post: Horsing around, Cheltenham, 12.03.08

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The Independent Online

Fans of National Hunt racing have been known to compare their sport to such diverse recreational pursuits as consorting with prostitutes, driving a brand new Rolls-Royce, and sporting a shiny gold watch: you'll find plenty of people doing it at the top of society, plenty at the bottom of society – but very few in between.

Nowhere was this more vividly illustrated than in the packed stands at Cheltenham yesterday, where more than 50,000 punters gathered for the opening of the annual festival. Over four long days, the sport's finest will be pitted against each other, in a bid to establish which athletes – both human and equine – deserve to be crowned champions.

As these photographs show, it's an occasion for both high and low culture: aristocrats and millionaires rub shoulders in the March drizzle with men and women from the most humble walks of life. Cockney barrow-boys in eight-button suits can be observed lining up comfortably alongside beetroot-faced landowners in their expensive, and frequently revolting, tweed.

A trip to Cheltenham race course, in a bowl beneath a Cotswold hillside, is something of a pilgrimage. Hordes flock over from Ireland, some to cheer on their nation's best hopes, others merely to sink the sky-high-priced Guinness. An estimated 200,000 pints of the black stuff will be downed, along with 18,000 bottles of champagne.

All of which serves to lubricate one of the most vibrant (and dangerous) betting arenas in the developed world: bookmakers expect to take no less than £600m from the festival, as dreams are made, hearts broken, fortunes won, and next term's school fees flushed away at the swift turn of a horse's hoof.