Profile: Cheltenham - Racing's rite of spring

Betting, boozing and the horses: nobody wants to miss the last `Festival' of the century
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You are going next week, aren't you?" For 150,000 people there is only one answer to this question, and no need to clarify the venue. If this seems like a masonic code, be assured that what is being discussed is a very open secret. The long-standing devotees simply call it "The Festival", while the more modern supporter will use the explicit shorthand ``Cheltenham".

Whichever term you use, it will be understood. Like "The Championships" in tennis and "The Open" in golf, National Hunt Racing's annual three- day contest between the best jumps horses in Britain and Ireland has achieved, curtly expressed, iconic status. Indeed it says much for the festival's pre-eminence that Cheltenham's more cultural bean-feasts have to insert the prefixes "literary" or "jazz" in order to identify themselves more clearly.

From early on Tuesday morning, large sections of our corporate and executive life, most of the Irish priesthood, some major segments of the families who own Britain, the odd royal figure, not to mention thousands of dedicated "foul-weather" friends of jump racing, will be making their disparate ways to Prestbury Park, just north of Cheltenham.

The "suits" will arrive by chauffeur-driven limousine, or if the company's share-price is holding up, by helicopter. Most Irish racegoers will have begun their pilgrimage the previous day, filling every hotel and B&B within a 50-mile radius of the Gloucestershire town. The guys and chicks in advertising and the media will probably take the Tote's special train from London, enjoying champagne and an English fry-up on the way. Many more will simply say a prayer and put their trust in Virgin Trains to get them there in time. Those who haven't had to resort to sick-notes, will simply have taken holiday leave. Nobody wants to miss Cheltenham this year, the last of the century.

So what draws such varied strands of British and Irish society to Cheltenham? The sociologists may say that it is the first, indeed only, rite of spring in the British calendar, and that its magnetism is deeply rooted in the Celtic rituals of our ancestors. Certainly the urge to celebrate the shorter nights is one instinct at work, though those expecting better weather are often deprived of this comfort by Cheltenham's fickle climate.

The natural beauty of the setting is also an attraction, with Cleeve Hill's long, craggy escarpment overlooking the richly-grassed arena carved out by the Ice Age. But for those who aren't pagans or geologists, the racing itself is the main attraction. The 20 races spread over three days feature the best available horses on the National Hunt circuit, with each day featuring a Championship race - the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, the two-mile Champion Chase on Wednesday, and the main event, the Gold Cup, on Thursday. Each of these races is unyieldingly competitive, with a place in history awaiting the winning horse and its connections. Those who back the winners will have memories, and hang-overs, that will last a very long time.

Even for the losers, there is the consolation of great fellowship. The term "renewal" is used by the National Hunt fraternity to describe these annual horse races, but they have a human side too, in respect of old friendships being rekindled and the unspoken celebrations at still being alive to attend. When the Irish horse Danoli, a folk hero because of his small stable and cheerfully unkempt trainer Tom Foley, won one of the opening hurdle races a few years back, I found myself dragged into a spontaneous dance by a beautiful, elegantly-dressed Irish woman. When her husband loomed on to the scene, he simply threw his arms around the both of us and joined in the jig. Cheltenham is like that, de-starched by the exuberant Irish presence, although the course's authorities are now on alert for the hundreds who usually try to invade the winner's enclosure whenever an Irish horse is led in. But King Canute had more chance of controlling the tides than any ``jobsworth" has in preventing the Irish fans from celebrating a victory by "one of theirs".

Indeed part of the sheer fun of Cheltenham comes in watching the English upper classes, suited in green tweed like figures in a Spy cartoon, trying to maintain decorum in the face of unaffected human spirit. When the Irish heroine Dawn Run, already a Champion Hurdle winner, competed for the Gold Cup in 1986, the Irish Republic had imposed a strict limit on the export of currency. The authorities had little chance of stemming the monetary outflow, with many of the priests who attended said to have been enlisted as "bagmen" on the grounds that they were the least likely to be searched. When Jonjo O'Neill drove the mare into a winning lead after the last fence, it is rumoured that the Irish Customs simply used the thousands of hats thrown into the air to target the miscreants, though few arrests were actually achieved.

Ah, yes. Cheltenham is also about money. Some of the biggest punters on the circuit save their money up specially for the festival, and the human swirl around the bookmakers in the betting ring resembles an ant colony in full swing. Huge bets are placed at Cheltenham, probably bigger than any other race meeting in the British Isles, with total turnover on course frequently exceeding pounds 5m a day. With vast quantities of food and drink consumed, this Bacchanal of the Cotswolds is not a place for the faint-hearted.

Yet Cheltenham's origins were relatively genteel. Steeplechasing by local hunts started at Prestbury Park in 1831, but it wasn't until 1902 that the course itself was established. Indeed, it took until 1924 for the first Gold Cup to be held, and even then it wasn't regarded as a race of much significance. The Grand National was the most important race in the calendar. Only in the 1930s did Cheltenham achieve some popular momentum, thanks largely to a horse called Golden Miller, who won five Gold Cups in succession, as well as taking the Grand National - the first horse to do the double and, so far, the only one to do it in the same year. The horse's fame, now commemorated by a statue at the course, was amplified by the antics of his owner, the deeply batty Dorothy Paget. A society spinster, Miss Paget kept eccentric hours, ringing her trainers during the night to ask about her horses. She was also a huge and wasteful gambler, frittering away a fortune in losing bets.

In the post-war years the festival was given increased credibility by Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien, who took the innovative step of flying his horses over for the meeting rather than sending them on the arduous boat journey. O'Brien won four Gold Cups, with Cottage Rake winning three times on the run between 1948 and 1950, and also saddled Hatton's Grace to a hat-trick of Champion Hurdle wins from 1949-51. As these races grew in significance, so did the crowds. And in the 1960s huge galleries attended the epic battles between the English horse Mill House and the Irish legend Arkle.

This Anglo-Irish contest is at the heart of the meeting, although, unlike such summits of a political nature, there is always an indelible spirit of sportsmanship between the rival camps. Indeed, many would say that far more is achieved in international relations at Cheltenham than at any other venue, including the Eurovision Song Contest.

Only in the late 1980s, when the "yuppie invasion" took place did the festival experience what might be termed social tensions. The arrival of scores of corporate helicopters looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now, while the pursuit of drunken oblivion seemed to take over from the nobler pursuit of backing a winner. Recessions and crowd limits of 50,000 a day have restored some dignity to the occasion, a feeling that the racing comes first, rather than the vain celebration of simply being at another event on the Tatler's calendar.

For those of us making the secular pilgrimage next week, the knowledge that a vibrant slice of popular drama, with a distinctly competitive edge, is at hand is already enough to set the pulse racing. Whether you are drinking, betting, training or riding at Cheltenham, there are no non- triers to be glimpsed there - merely those who don't stay the trip.