And so to the final day of this liver-crushing, wallet-bending, roller-coaster of a week. And guess what? It’s raining. And it’s cold. Very cold indeed.
But it’s scarcely enough to chill the bones on a day when National Hunt enthusiasts worship in their most swollen numbers for the Blue Riband event of the Turf – the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
They’ve been smashing attendance records left, right and centre all week and today is expected to be a sell-out. In fact, it’s only 8 am but I can confirm it’s a sell-out because the omnipresent ticket touts are peddling in earnest in the Press car park. They must be desperate. They know they can make some cash today, and they’ll probably sell a few of yesterday’s tickets to unsuspecting folk before the morning is out.
On the big screen, they’re showing re-runs of famous Gold Cups of yesteryear, all beautifully set to the soundtrack of our youth, Sir Peter O’Sullevan calling them home. When Desert Orchard finally climbs up that famous hill, a couple of tubby old tweedsters start to applaud as O’Sullevan declares the Dessie has done it. The passing of 26 years has clearly not dimmed the memory. They were here than and they’re here now.
And I guess that’s where the magic of Cheltenham lies. Year after year, we turn up, full of hope; we follow the same rituals, we speak the same rubbish to the same friends who join us on the pilgrimage. We vow to drink a little less and we fail; we pledge to bet a bit more cautiously and we fail; and yet failure has never been so enjoyable, so rapturous and so rewarding.
For here in Prestbury Park is every walk of human-kind. Sober and sozzled, wisp-like and weighty, they’re all here, rubbing shoulders and booming with laughter, often at their own expense.
In truth, Gold Cup day borders on the over-crowded. Everything takes that little bit longer as the masses of people shuffle from bar to enclosure and back to bar, stopping occasionally to lock horns with their bookmaker. And sometimes, we all stop to remember those who went before. The statues of former Gold Cup heroes scatter the course and the Hall of Fame is decked in the silks of those glorious winners whose names are still whispered reverentially.
So when the novice Coneygree makes all to win the biggest and most prestigious race of the week, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, there is a fitting symmetry. His breeder, the late great Lord Oaksey was the ultimate Corinthian. Coneygree could have taken the traditional route for novices and gone for Wednesday’s RSA Chase. It would have made sense and nobody would have been surprised.
But connections of Coneygree chose to shoot for the moon, they went all in for the win and to hell with the safety of an each-way insurance. Sometimes there’s no such thing as “next year”. It is the here and now that matters. Yes, the Douvans and Vautours and Don Polis will reappear next year with their favourite tags and the weight of the antepost vouchers of far-sighted punters in their grasp, but next year can wait.
For now we say goodbye to AP McCoy. We’ve probably also said goodbye to Sprinter Sacre, and we may not see Silviniaco Conti here again: Cheltenham isn’t his bag.
But for the rest of us, it is our bag and it’s an awful lot more. The band is still playing The Wild Rover and we’re trying to join in, but the usual 6 pm despondency descends.
We shuffle out to sit in an endless trail of tail-lights, reflecting on a week which has no compare. Tomorrow we’ll return the humdrum of our lives: working out how long it is til pay-day, and where the nearest dry-cleaner is.
But as the darkness falls, the candle of hope burns on. Next year we will be back, from every corner of the land and beyond, and we’ll play it all over again and as we arrive 51 weeks on Tuesday full of hope, we’ll take a deep breath and give thanks that we’re racing fans.
Truly, this is the greatest show on turf.