How Was It For You?

Well, how was it for you?

No, don’t worry it is not the question of an insecure lover. I am enquiring, of course, about the Cheltenham Festival.

Presumably if you happen to be a bookmaker it will be “it was absolutely fantastic” and in all probability you will be reading this on some tropical beach.

If you were a punter the answer will probably be “quite painful”. There are, of course, some success stories and some near misses. Like the punter who would have picked up a cool million had Carruthers finished third rather than fourth in the Gold Cup.

From a betting perspective it was a Festival of two halves. The first two days were both good to me. I had laid Dunguib quite heavily and also backed Menorah to win the opener. Coupled with each way bets on Zaynar and Carole’s Legacy I was certainly smiling after day one. 

Wednesday was saved by a last minute punt on Poker De Sivola after seeing him in the parade ring. Plus I laid Long Run, although most of that profit was lost by Punchestowns not winning.  My laying of Long Run also attracted some friendly abuse from a well known commentator who had backed Long Run and telling me in no uncertain terms it was his money I had taken.

Thereafter it was downhill in a big way. Despite backing Big Bucks and BallaBriggs I still finished the day well down. Now Friday – well let us just ignore that completely, an unmitigated disaster from a punting perspective with my only return being on Carruthers in the “betting without Kauto and Denman” market.

So financially very much a loosing week.

Of course punting, at least for me, is only a small part of the Festival. For me it is the spectacle of 26 top races, nearly all fiercely competitive and, of course, the atmosphere of actually being there.

For me the “excitement” of Cheltenham really begins in January when a padded envelope containing my media accreditation drops through the letterbox.

Even accredited racing journalists still have to apply for accreditation for the “big four” (Cheltenham, Grand National, Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot) mainly because of the great demand for media access.

At the Festival there are two main press areas. The main press room and the media centre. The main press room is reserved for the trade papers, broadcasters and the correspondents from the national press.  In the food chain of racing journalism I, naturally, am somewhere near the plankton level. Therefore my accreditation only allows me access to the media centre.

This is not as bad as it first sounds as the media centre can, in most aspects, be a better deal. By all accounts the main press room gets very full, indeed over full. Indeed one colleague described it to me as a room full of ego’s. It also, apparently, gets very fractious with frequent clashes and disputes, nay near fisticuffs, over such matters as “ownership” of chairs.

In the media centre, provided you have booked a desk in advance there is a space for you, with your name and there are no squabbles over seating at all. Indeed the media centre is the base of the Irish press contingent and that leads to a great atmosphere especially when they stagger in after a heavy night on the juice and, even more so when the “home team” beat the Irish yet again.

There are only two “disadvantages” of being in the media centre as opposed to the main press room. The main one being there is no direct viewing of the racing, whereas the press room has a balcony overlooking the finishing line. The other disadvantage is it is located in the Guinness Village.

If you don’t know the layout of Cheltenham at the festival let me tell you the villages role is well described by its title the - Guinness Village.

Basically it is the drinking centre of the Festival. It gets very crowded and as the day progresses it gets progressively louder. The crowds are a problem, especially on Gold Cup day, as they make getting from the Media Centre to the Parade Ring / track something of an assault course.

The noise does become a pain, literally, especially when you are trying to think of something different to write or are attempting to analyse a tricky race. Add in a band playing at full volume next door  (playing the same set three or four times a day for all four days) with the added bonus late afternoon of drunken revellers stamping their feet on the metal stands in time to the music and it is small wonder 90% of those in the media centre have earpieces or earplugs in.

I have to say Cheltenham do look after the media well and the access granted to the participants is particularly good. There are even some rituals. Go to the weighing room steps between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and there will be a clutch of racing journos and broadcasters all trying to elicit words of wisdom from the arriving jockeys and trainers.

It is a really great atmosphere and despite the difficulties of battling through crowds it is my favourite four days of the year.

It is also, in another way, the most difficult four days of the year. On principle I refuse to pay the inflated hotel prices in the Cheltenham area during the Festival, even if they can be claimed as “legitimate business expenses”. Therefore I commute each day, this means leaving home about 7:30 for the first three days, 7:00 on Gold Cup day. Arriving at the course around 9:15. Then not getting back home until around 9:00 in the evening.

Eating sensibly also goes out of the window for the four days. “Breakfast” tends to be a cereal bar whilst driving to the course and a bacon sandwich on arrival. Lunch is from a nearby mobile unit which is invariably a “choice” of Hog Roast , Burger or Fish & Chips.

Note to all racecourses, not just Cheltenham, please, please, please give racegoers a better food choice from the mobile units. Not everyone wants grease laden fast food – please provide some healthy options.

The other occupational hazard is it is not possible to drink too much and I am not talking booze here. I daren’t drink any more than a single bottle of water during the day as the queues for the loos make it almost impossible to do what comes naturally without risking missing a race.

On a quiet afternoon at Leicester it is no problem popping into the loo mid-afternoon. At Cheltenham you need to allow at least 15 minutes and with 35-40 minutes between races it is a near impossibility.

On Friday I had to miss the Foxhunters as I was so desperate to empty out.

But as I have already mentioned all the discomfort is worth it to experience a day at the Festival. It is hard work, you need patience and if you have a strong bladder it is a distinct advantage, however to be able to watch National Hunt racing at its very best it is a meeting that should not be missed – even if the results are sometimes beyond comprehension.

Roll on Cheltenham 2011.


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