The Spirit of Cheltenham

Ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, Timeform’s Jamie Lynch encapsulates the spirit of Cheltenham.

In a magical corner, deep in the Cotswolds,
In a natural amphitheatre, the drama unfolds
In a tidal wave of euphoria on which we all surf
In a four-day frenzy, the greatest show on turf
Rumours abound: X is catching a pigeon
This is more than just racing; it’s like a religion
And God loves a giver and God loves a trier
The power is high but stakes are still higher
The money doesn’t trickle, it comes like a flood
Sending bookies, they say, into warm baths of blood
The rest of the year tends to blur, tends to bore
But everything changes with the one-thirty roar
It engenders goose bumps, it sends down a shiver
It triggers all jokes about pickling one’s liver
The drinking, the betting, the thrill of the chase
Bad drinking, bad betting, the lies to save face
You can land on your feet or end up on your back
But anything goes if you call it ‘The Craic’
And it’s each to their own with the Festival bankers
Some become heroes, some become worse off  

A perceptive poem that encapsulates Cheltenham, or the sort of draining dewy-eyed drivel that gets regurgitated about the Festival year in year out? It’s more of the latter, hopefully, seeing as I wrote it, taking ten minutes but calling on ten years of pent-up petty annoyance at the semi-stereotypical way that Cheltenham tends to be portrayed, focusing on the by-products and sideshows.    

A by-product needs a product and a sideshow needs a show. The product is racing, the show is the Cheltenham Festival, and the stars are the horses.  

True, to be at the Festival is to feel like you’re at the epicentre of the universe, and to watch it from afar is to feel like you want to be at the epicentre of the universe. The carnival atmosphere helps to make Cheltenham unique, but the standard and status of the racing is the reason this ring fenced week has become the phenomenon it has, and all that entails.  

Live TV is back in vogue, from the schadenfreude involved in the fallen Madonna to the fanfare surrounding ‘live week’ on Eastenders, which, as far as I could tell, was only one-third real-time and overly self-congratulatory towards a wobble-free Woodyatt. The beauty of racing, with its peak-time show-time of Cheltenham, is that it’s live TV at its best; totally unscripted, totally theatrical, and totally engrossing.  

The annual, four-part drama entitled The Festival is a must-watch, because of the plot twists, because of the recurring characters, because of the new ones, because of The New One, and all his fellow star-cast members, each pampered and primed like an A-lister for this biggest of productions, very much an Anglo-Irish production, all the better and bitter for it.  

The battle between Britain and Ireland, organic and traditional in nature, like the Festival itself, needs no heat put under it whatsoever, least not this year with the fireworks of the opening ceremony that is the Supreme, featuring the best novices from either side of the Irish Sea, Douvan and L’Ami Serge, who both have a touch of Gallic flair for good measure. Douvan is part of the heavy artillery that Ireland is rolling out early, with Un de Sceaux next up, closely followed by Faugheen, two stars of the season and potential superstars of the age.    

The British VIPs hoping to spoil the green-and-gold party include the S-Club – Silviniaco Conti, Sire de Grugy and Sprinter Sacre – which is a positive portent for the home contingent as it’s written in the reached-for stars that there ain’t no party like an S-Club party. In the battle of wills, thrills and spills, Ireland might have Faugheen and co but Britain has Peace And Co, the Timeform banker for two reasons: firstly, the rating he’s already achieved would have won him the vast majority of Triumph Hurdles and, secondly, the fact the race is on the last day is useful for buying some time with a reputation-hinging Cheltenham selection.  

The Festival is all of those hackneyed platitudes drawn out in the tongue-in-cheek The Spirit of Cheltenham, but fundamentally it’s all about the racing, hence it’s all about the horses. The Cheltenham Festival is a life gift token, for you to spend how you want, where you want, within those four days of the year that make the other 361 seem like supermarket shopping. Cheltenham is your reward points: make the most of it.       

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