Christmas Will Not Be The Same This Year

Surprisingly, even though it is half a century ago, I can still remember my childhood days when the year revolved around Christmas – the long build-up, the excitement, the anticipation.

The sleepless night, especially Christmas Eve, then Christmas morning and what you had waited so long for, the pile of new presents awaiting you on Christmas morning.

Innocent excitement, happy memories.

But of course nothing lasts forever and reality replaces the fantasy.

Priorities and expectations change – after all it would be deeply concerning if, as a middle aged man, ones year revolved around the arrival of a jolly fat man, with an overly strong attachment for young children, bearing sacks of gifts.

Of course, being creatures of habit, us humans like to have some cycle to our life. Some people I know are eagerly awaiting next weekend and the start of the new F1 season.

I once knew somebody whose whole year was focused on getting hold of and drinking a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau on the vary day it is released.

For those of us whose obsession tends to focus on horse racing it tends to be particular races, the Grand National or The Derby for example.

For me it’s the festivals.

My summer treat is Royal Ascot, top quality flat racing and, to be controversial, I adore the sense of occasion, the formality and the dressing up and, yes, I admit I like looking at attractive fillies as well (although looking at the less attractive fillies who think they are attractive can be equally amusing).

I adore Longchamp in October, two days of top class racing, six group one races on the Sunday, culminating in the Arc. Add in French chic and a setting in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and we are talking near racing heaven – but only near.

However, having a preference for National Hunt racing, there is only one Festival that really counts and that’s the one at Prestbury Park, Cheltenham in the middle of March every year.

For me it is Christmas, Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah all rolled into one.

Four glorious days racing. 27 races, all of which have their own story.

It’s not just the racing though. It is the atmosphere, a unique atmosphere. Yes the drink, especially the Guinness, flows but there doesn’t seem to be the same edge as at other meetings. Most are there to see the racing, the racing is central to the occasion, not an incidental.

The majority of those at the course are actually there because they want to see the racing, as opposed to some of the summer “festivals” where racegoers wouldn’t recognise a horse if it turned round and looked them in the eyes.

For many it is the culmination of the NH season, indeed it could be argued it should be the end of the NH season but that’s another discussion.

I think you get the message now, I love Cheltenham, I love the build-up, the intrigue as to what will run, what will be fit, what will not.

I love the final days leading up to it as the final running plans begin to emerge. As we have the, seemingly now mandatory, scare or controversy.

Like the child me in the build-up to Christmas I find myself getting increasingly excited as the festival approaches. I can’t remember when I last had a good sleep on Cheltenham Eve.

I love arriving at the course at around 9:00 on the Tuesday morning, just as the finishing touches are being applied. It is a privilege to be allowed inside the course before the public but to walk around in almost surreal isolation is something special, especially when you know what is going to ensue a few hours later.

It is just special.

Sadly, for me, Cheltenham 2012 is only going to be a dream.

I remember one Christmas as a child when I was not well, one of the usual childhood illnesses, but I ended up being confined to bed over Christmas – it was still Christmas but it wasn’t the same.
Last weekend I went racing at Huntingdon and the weather was horrible, rain, sleet, snow and wind – an absolutely foul afternoon.

That evening I felt ill but just put it down to an afternoon in the cold.

One sleepless night later I felt like death warmed up, I had the ‘flu, yet in a perverse way I was pleased. I thought “at least having it now I will shake it off in time for Cheltenham.”

That was the theory as the week progressed I wasn’t getting better as quickly as I hoped. They say it takes longer to recover as you get older and that is true, in so many ways!!

By the end of the week I was beginning to have doubts about getting, at least, to the opening days of the Festival.

I thought back to that Christmas when I wasn’t well where despite feeling ill I still tried to convince my Mother I was fine and could get up for the big day.

Here I was fifty-odd years later convincing myself I will be fit for Cheltenham.

Indeed going to bed Friday night I was actually beginning to feel quite good in myself, there was hope.

Then Saturday morning it all went wrong again, I’ll spare you the gory detail but it had gone to my chest and I ended up having to get the medics to help.

It was then the inevitable began to dawn on me – I could end up missing all of Cheltenham.

Like that child all those years ago I tried to convince myself it wouldn’t be a problem, I could cope.
Sadly with age does come some wisdom as I also remember what working the Festival is really like.

The days are very long, having to battle through the crowds is physically demanding and it actually is very hard work. Even when fully fit I finish each day exhausted and the whole week absolutely shattered – if I’m like that when going into the week fit, is it really sensible to even attempt it when nowhere near fit as I am now? My heart says "keep on trying" even if it is just for one day, my head says "don't be so stupid". The head is going to win - it's time to accept reality, accept I'm not as young and as fit as I used to be, accept if I do try and go to Cheltenham I will only make things worse.

I am going to have to settle with watching Cheltenham 2012 on television. Yes I will see the racing but it will be nowhere near the same.

It is like a child waiting for Christmas Day only to wake up to find, at the end of the bed, not a huge pile of presents but a photograph of a pile of presents – it’s not the same.

It’s enough to make you want to cry.          


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