It’s amazing how many people still smoke. This has always been my first reflection each year for the past decade or so as I park my car up in the Press car park on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. The scene is always, reassuringly, the same. Jockeys, grooms, trainers, horse-whisperers, all puffing away, all nervously treading the racing boards and exchanging furtive snippets of gossip ahead of the biggest week of the National Hunt year.
It’s only 7 o clock in the morning but the air is heavy with anticipation. Thousands of catering staff are shivering outside the gates, waiting to be dispatched to their small corner of the turf to attend to the whims and fancies of the hundreds of thousands of punters whose fortunes will be won and lost before the weekend.
Mornings at the Festival – long before the gates open – are a rare privilege afforded to the deserving and undeserving in equal measure. I comfortably fall into the latter category but I keep my head down and enjoy it. With the sun rising above Cleeve Hill, there can be few more beautiful sights in sport. If God made amphitheatres, he would use Prestbury Park as his template.
As the gates open at 11.00, there is a surge towards the infamous Guinness Village. Nearly a quarter of a million pints of the Black Stuff were downed by racegoers last year and early indications suggest this year’s cohort of Festival attendees fancy a crack at breaking that record.
Laughter soars high above the rapidly filling grandstands and the horses in the pre-parade ring and stables barely get noticed, other than by the most devoted of worshippers at this grand cathedral of racing.
The press room is buzzing. Journalists are juggling their next day’s copy with the more pressing need to get their bets on for the coming races. And two names dominate: Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. Two names to strike fear into the hearts of bookies on both sides of the Irish Sea, and they’ve wasted no time in reminding us how potless they will be if all the big guns win. Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power. The four horses of the apocalypse and tens of millions will be riding on their fate.
Sophie Brudenell, the overworked yet remarkably calm Comms Director here at the racecourse is furrowing her brow as her walkie-talkie goes on the blink. Faugheen, the hot Champion Hurdle favourite, looks on – unfussed. Rich Ricci – the mega-banker and top racehorse owner flashes a smile at anyone who dares to look at him enviously. JP McManus, another grandee of the owning ranks, cuts a less conspicuous figure and is deep in conversation with his racing manager, Frank Berry, and the soon-to-be retired champion jockey, AP McCoy.
It’s still over an hour until racing and it can’t come soon enough.
When the racing finally begins, it’s all about Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. The bookies have peddled their doomsday scenarios around the four horses of the apocalypse. Douvan gets the punters off to a tremendous start under Ruby and raises the grandstand roof.
Well, one of the grandstand roofs. The other main grandstand here is being renovated and stands eerie and empty, half-built in concrete, a peculiar spectre at this most glorious feast. Moments later, Walsh and Mullins team up as Un De Sceaux cruises to a facile win the Arkle Trophy, and the bookies start to the feel the heat of the afternoon sun. Down in the gritty, earthy world of the betting ring, hundreds of thousands of pounds are being shovelled onto the favourite in the Champion Hurdle, Faugheen. Bookies are trying to look brave, but the grins are forced. If Faugheen wins, they’ll be way behind.
Faugheen wins. Punters are in clover. Is this year going to be a record for Guinness? It certainly feels like it.
And so to Annie Power: the fourth and final leg of the most popular accumulator bet in history. Turning into the home straight, Ruby went for home and the mare quickened away. Just one hurdle to clear and the punters would enjoy their greatest ever day at the Festival. And then the unthinkable happens: Annie Power clatters the last and unseats Ruby Walsh.
50,000 racegoers gasped and the bookies were spared their hiding as Glen’s Melody picked up the pieces to win in a photo finish.
Truly, the God of bookmaking moves in mysterious ways.