To tell the truth, I am not a mad racing man, nor has betting much bothered me. Down the years I was dispatched often enough by the Guardian (then drearily prudish about racing) to keep an eye on the classics (as well as, I fancy, on the appetites and expenses of its wonderful, unappreciated racing writer Richard Baerlein) and found myself regularly caught up in the tizz and fizz of it all. And I’ve enjoyed always some of the sport’s other writers of info and grandeur, from Jack Leach, Lord Oaksey and Brough Scott, to the Spec’s own surreptitious star in the hedge at the morning gallops, Robin Oakley. But a Cheltenham man I am. As a boy, National Hunt’s high-days’ holiday and harbinger of spring was, to all intents, our local point-to-point. My pa took me first in 1946 when I was eight — dear old days when Chelt in March was a sort of Cotswold countryman’s cup final, all working tweeds and gumboots, and brown trilbies or ratcatcher caps. Now it is an immense hospitality binge where the townee world and his wife (and mistress) get as sponsored as newts in a vast encampment of candy-striped flouncy marquees. Some brandied businessmen and their millineried molls sit sniggering in them all day, barely bothering to watch the races even on television. As for the traffic ...it’s logjam for miles around. That scribbling jockey William Cobbett had no remote knowledge of ‘corporate hospitality’, yet a good 170 years ago the gruff old rural rider prophesied pretty well spot-on: ‘Cheltenham on race day is the resort of the lame and the lazy, the gourmandising and the guzzling, the bilious and the nervous....’
But, oh, the horses ...and their timeless heroics. Two of my most stirring sporting moments were the Gold Cup victories of Dawn Run in 1986 and, a couple of years later, of the grey Desert Orchid — each fabled gallop hosannahed up the hill to home midst, I promise you, a dementedly hooraying hail of hundreds of frisbeeing checked caps. That first Gold Cup my pa took me to almost 60 years ago was won by Prince Regent, pre-eminent nag of his time, and I can still see the great gallant creature straining up to the post, knackered and steaming, nostrils flaring like cartoon trumpets. He was trained by Tom Dreaper in Kilsallaghan, County Dublin, the fellow who went on to saddle up the most legendary of them all, the nonpareil Arkle (whom, alas, I never saw in the flesh). Next week, for imperishable history, Arkle’s astonishing three-on-the-trot Gold Cup record could be beaten by another epic figure, Best Mate, owned by a generous and cheerfully rich Aston Villa nut (thus the claret-and-blue jockey’s silks) who lives just up the Tewkesbury Road.
Might the Irish send over a challenger to keep their bonny Arkle’s record intact? I wouldn’t put it past them. For some over there, the whole year revolves around winners at Chelt. And they do savour a bet, not to mention the relish of winning it. Like lamented Jeff Bernard’s glorious Cheltenham tale in these very pages a few decades ago of the time he saw an old Irish farmer plonk £100 on a horse at 7-1. The bookie’s sign on his stand proclaimed him Honest Mr Finnegan. When the horse obliged and your farmer was having his 700-odd counted into his gnarled old palm, he kept saying: ‘You’d have heard of fockin’ Finnegans Wake, sorr; well, this is your fockin’ wake, Finnegan.’