The Cheltenham Festival: When did a day at the races become too much of a good thing?

Until relatively recently, Cheltenham was a three-day event, climaxing on Thursday with its main attraction, the Gold Cup. It had a perfect rhythm

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You can have too much of a good thing. Really? I've never quite understood this rather Puritanical piece of homespun philosophy. If you like something, why wouldn't you want to do it until the end of time?

I remember being told at school that the 18th century poet and satirist Alexander Pope had, carved above his door, the legend "Excess in Everything", and this has always struck me as a rather good modus vivendi. As I have got older, however, it becomes increasingly less sustainable, and I now, for various reasons, have little more than a passing acquaintance with the good things of which I almost certainly had too much.

This week, more than any other, I feel it deeply. I have attended horseracing's Cheltenham Festival every year for the best part of two decades, but this year there's no champagne with old friends in the Arkle Bar, no sense of being a foot soldier in a ragtag army of punters doing battle with a common enemy, no revelling in the grandeur of the most natural amphitheatre in the world of sport, no sure things, no dashed hopes, no long way home. I will miss my friend's horse running on Thursday. He has a chance, too, having thrillingly won a race at last year's Festival (my liver probably deserves a respite after taking enough punishment in the aftermath of that triumph).

But Cheltenham itself is an example of how you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Until relatively recently, it was a three-day event, climaxing on Thursday afternoon with its main attraction, the Gold Cup. It had a perfect rhythm, and three days of fast and furious competition ensured that every race was of the highest quality, and was quite enough time for everyone to drink as much Guinness as they needed to, and lose as much money as they could afford to. But eight years ago, in a quest to maximise its financial potential, the Festival was extended to four days, and it now finishes on a Friday.

This was a perfectly understandable move - racecourses face the economic challenge of matching their huge overheads with the opportunity to do business only on a limited number of days in the year - but, for my money, it has acted to dilute the intense flavour of the Festival. By the time Friday comes along, there is the palpable sense of jaded palates among many of those who are there for the whole trip. And there's no arguing that the equine excellence is spread just a little more thinly these days.

I appreciate that, for most people, these are highly esoteric distinctions. Horseracing exists in the national consciousness primarily when it's the Grand National or Derby day. In any case, most of the population are to be found at work during weekdays: Cheltenham is full of people on mobiles telling their office "I'm on a course" or "I'm at a meeting". It's vignettes like this I shall miss, too. Have I had too much of a good thing? I sincerely hope not. Oh, and talking of good things: Riverside Theatre in the Ryanair Chase on Thursday.

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