The first point which any punter heading for Cheltenham tomorrow must remember is that there is clearly a direct descendant of Oliver Cromwell employed towards the top of the Highways Agency. At the beginning of March, his Puritan instincts rise, and at least one set of major roadworks appears within 10 miles of the course. Smart punters will avoid the inevitable tailbacks by leaving before dawn - even if they live in Gloucester - and tuning to Festival Radio (1584KHz/189m on MW) for news on the latest trouble- spots.
Obstacle two can be the ticket touts offering badges at what - given the official pounds 50 admission for the Club enclosure (pounds 60 on Gold Cup day) - would appear bargain prices. Many, though, are forgeries which the course security system will cheerfully identify at the gate. Buying one is the worst-value bet of the week.
The irritating news for those who arrive early is that the traditional stroll around the course will not be permitted this year. The excuse - that too many strollers will compact the ground - is laughable, but it is good news for the proprietors of the many trade stands in the vicinity of the Guinness village. The range of goods on offer can be rather limited - all the way from waxed jackets to . . . hunting prints - but bibliophiles will enjoy the second-hand bookstalls.
As off-time for the first race approaches, all those stories about the huge sums which change hands in Cheltenham's betting ring may seem rather hard to credit, since even following the latest rebuilding work, the business end of Tattersalls' will be so densely populated that it is a wonder anyone ever gets a bet on at all. Anyone who shops around for a price until the last possible moment can forget about actually seeing the race, since even those privileged few in possession of a private box will be lucky to get to it before the prize-giving in the winners' enclosure.
For those interested in backing relative outsiders at, say, 8-1 or bigger - and lest we forget, 19 of the 20 favourites last year were beaten - the Tote can be a far better alternative. This year, what's more, many off-course punters can benefit too, following the decision of Ladbrokes to add their 1,800 betting shops to those of Coral in the Tote Direct network, which should ensure that everyone is better off with pools that are stronger than ever.
Back in the ring, anyone who manages to attract a bookie's eye will often find that they can bet either in sterling or Irish punts. Be careful if there are any winnings to collect from a sterling bet, however, since some layers seem to believe that we have already signed up for a single currency. At the latest exchange rate, each Irish tenner they can slip in among the British ones will save them three per cent, which does not seem like much until you remember that: a. they are probably trying it on with everyone, and, more importantly, b. Cheltenham's pubs and restaurants are unlikely to accept Irish notes quite so freely.
Finally, those fortunate few who discover that their wedge has actually grown during the course of the afternoon can frustrate the pickpocket by depositing some or all into their current account via one of the on- course branches of the Allied Irish Bank or Bank of Ireland. The ever- helpful people behind their windows are also worldly enough to cash cheques without asking too many questions.
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