RACELINE: Cheltenham Festival Preview

A look ahead to the greatest week of jumps racing in the world -- with our resident tipster and expert, Scoop Racing (Richard Silverwood).

Tuesday, 5th March 2013, 11:39 am
Tony McCoy on Synchronised as they go on to win the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase during day four of the 2012 Cheltenham Fesitval at Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday March 16, 2012. See PA story RACING Cheltenham. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only including book use. No commercial use. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information.

THE month of March means nothing else to those of us passionate about racing.

It’s time for the incomparable Cheltenham Festival. Four days of the best jumps racing anywhere on the planet.

A time when a quiet corner of the Cotswolds is transformed into a cauldron of spectacular sporting drama.

A time when dreams are realised and dreams are shattered. When hopes are raised and hopes are sunk. And when glasses are raised and glasses are sunk!

As award-winning scribe Alastair Down, racing journalist of the year, wrote this week: “Over the last 30 years, no other British sporting occasion has soared on an upward curve quite like the Cheltenham Festival.

“Back in the 1980s, it was something of a tweedy secret among the mud-pluggers, with 70,000 racegoers attending its three days. Now, more than a quarter of a million ram the old place for four.

“And for every enthusiast lucky enough to be on course, there are ten back home riveted to the action in betting shop, bar and front room as the best jumpers in the islands follow in the footsteps of the sport’s legends in the lee of Cleeve Hill.

“Whether you watch from the lawn in front of the stands or on the TV, you can chuck that stiff upper lip away for the duration. Because every year, without fail, the festival shivers the spine with spectacle, excitement and emotion in the raw.

“Nowhere else in sport generates an atmosphere quite like it. As the tired but triumphant wend their way back down the horsewalk in front of the stands, there is an eruption of acclaim, admiration, affection and plain unvarnished joy.”

Stirring stuff from Down, a festival veteran who freely admits his life and career have been moulded by the remarkable stories that have enriched Cheltenham’s tapestry over the years.

My first memory is of Bregawn leading home the famous five of trainer Michael Dickinson in the Gold Cup exactly 30 years ago. My first festival was the following year when the great, ill-fated mare Dawn Run won the Champion Hurdle. From the moment I had my first taste of festival fever at the Rotunda pub in the Montpellier district of Cheltenham. I was hooked.

I have been back, without fail, every year since (foot and mouth allowing, of course). Never missed a day. Never missed a race. It would be sheer sacrilege to even consider going AWOL now.

My affection for the festival is as ridiculous as my aim to make 50 years on the trot. Like some dogged, haggard, old stayer keeping on up the Cheltenham hill. I have a long way to go. The formbook notes that my health is already coming under a ride, while my finances have been awarded the dreaded Timeform squiggle.

I am often asked what it is that lends the Cheltenham Festival its magical aura. The relentless quality of the racing on offer is the obvious answer. The fact that each and every race is now a momentous event in its own right.

But in the end, the responses get as monotonous and annoying as looking at someone else’s holiday snaps. I am increasingly unable to come up with the definitive answer, except to urge the inquisitive to find out for themselves.

Go along. Suck it and see. But don’t just attach yourself to a boozy bus-trip, in one minute, out the next. Challenge your purse strings and spend the whole week there. Stay local. Soak up the atmosphere that pervades town and surrounding villages, as well as the racecourse. Mix with the Irish legions who make the meeting so unforgettable. Throw your money at the bookmakers and bartenders. Immerse yourself in the whole occasion.

You will emerge battered, broken and maybe broke. But the experience will have made a deep impression unlikely to leave you in a hurry.

It’s certainly never left Ruby Walsh. He’s ridden 34 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, more than any other jockey. He has two Gold Cups, three Queen Mother Champions Chases and one Champion Hurdle to his name. And he is currently in the envious position as lead jockey for two of the three most powerful stables in the UK and Ireland, Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins. But still, he admits that the festival has the capacity to shoot up the hairs on the back of his neck.

“As jockeys, it’s our biggest time,” Ruby told the ‘Racing Post’ last weekend. “It’s the only time we get to feel like footballers or rugby players.

“I enjoy the crowd, the atmosphere, maybe even the pressure. I love the build-up. You walk out for the first race and the place is buzzing. You’re not walking into a cold, dank parade-ring with five old lads leaning over the rail.”

Buzzing is the buzz word as the 2013 festival draws ever nearer. Buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Tips are flying through the air, like moths circling in search of light. Soon, we will hear the roar as the tapes go up for the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. And soon we will know the answer to the first question of another wonderful week -- My Tent Or Yours?