Cheltenham: the festival of choice

Cheltenham: the festival of choice

09:30. Over their choice breakfast, a group of worshipers listen to the opening show.
Listen carefully to the words of legendary owner JP McManus; every syllable is dissected with the detail of Bletchley Park veterans, on the lookout for a possible golden cup.
McManus’ deep Irish cadence conveys an air of hypnotic anticipation… “It’s like Christmas when I was a kid”,… he muses, “you wait 365 days, and then finally it happens”.

Tuesday 15th March 2022, the opening morning of the annual Cheltenham National Hunt Festival where lifelong ambitions hang in the balance. A top-notch cast of top horses, trainers and jockeys are ready to show off their skills to the assembled faithful.

The pilgrimage to Prestbury Park dates back to 1902. And this Victorian spa, with manicured streets and tree-lined avenues, offers welcome tranquility to strolling guests.
Its positioning in mid-March invites a cross-border coalition, as the historic Anglo-Irish rivalry playfully permeates the atmosphere.

Each year, more than 250,000 spectators are expected to pay to see the twenty-eight championship races take place over the four days of the festival, culminating in Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup ‘Blue-Riband’.

The reunion faithfully reflects the broader market-driven perspectives in contemporary society, even as the Festival’s enduring appeal supports its exalted position in equine folklore.
Elite performers need a suitable arena: and (in equestrian terms) this first hilly, left-handed course (with its ruthless obstacles) is unique.

Advances in broadcast technology fail to capture the grueling climb to the Winning Post. Indeed, the resplendent landscape – with Cleeve Hill as a backdrop, might inspire the likes of JMW Turner to pick up his tools.

Cheltenham Spa is designed to suit a variety of shapes: those seeking high-end retail therapies (on par with London’s boutiques), won’t be disappointed, nor will those relaxing in its leafy promenade squares. . But for those driven to get rich quick on the racetrack, well, that’s a whole different ball game. Only a few gallants come out unscathed.

You can, however, be assured that the speakers in the many bars, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs will be purring incessantly under the glare of uncoupled credit cards.

11:00. As we approach Cheltenham town centre, the purpose of our journey becomes a reality. My six-year break creates nervousness. A mundane form of Q and A, provides valuable respite. “I’ve been making the trip since ’97,” Murray offers, “and aside from the foot-and-mouth interlude, I’m an omnipresent.” His colleague Nick, dressed in a light three-quarter length overcoat (à la Francois Doumen), celebrates four in a row and is “quietly confident” that next Friday “the milky bars will be on him”.

1:00 p.m. As the arena appears, “Buy and Sell Your Ticket” is the top call from the Saville Row touts circling the many entrances to this performance palace. Their dialect is a hybrid of Scouse and Cockney, and although they hunt in packs, they come in peace.

Crowds squeeze into the entrances as the race rapidly approaches. Last minute doubts are turned into submission. Distractions abound. Adjacent to the numerous enclosures, aromas emanate from train cars loaded with culinary capsules manned by white-aproned strategists adept at securing no-frills transactions.

1:30 p.m. There are more colors on display than in a Dulux catalogue. This emporium of the senses sends you into a spin. Simultaneously, the course commentator begins to decipher the main runners and runners, as vantage points are hastily sought out. A last-minute 360-degree turn hints at the enormity of the occasion, before a heart-rending collective roar signals the OFF.

Hospitality is everywhere in this arena. Newbies to the service industry could learn a trick or two from these racetrack experts. Indeed, the folklore of the festival is rooted in the melodious language and gestures of those present, and rests on the universality of specific mannerisms.

Bookmakers, fueled by rapier-like hand gestures, can simultaneously steer a lost airplane pilot to safety, while enticing willing punters to part with their hard-earned cash.
Likewise, black-and-white event personnel rely heavily on eye contact; basic hand signals and lip reading, to preserve their sanity during the week of the Festival.

3:30 p.m. The Feature-Race – after which the pace in the arena drops dramatically.

As a sense of clarity beckons, attention is drawn to the tangible. Bronze statuettes of Arkle and Dawn race forget their younger contemporaries; while the traditional craic in the tent village (frequented by racing veterans), revolves around bread and butter issues.

This is in stark contrast to market-oriented lounges, where attire is ready-made, and bar patrons have different expectations of hospitality. We recognize a former professional footballer, and judging by the crease in Dion’s immaculate ice-blue suit, you might spill blood if touched.

At the end of the events; there’s a familiarity about everything: a sense of another time – of one more time – of better luck next time.

5:50 p.m. As the masses parade through the exits in melodious contemplation, their journey to the city is less animated. Stamina is a prerequisite as the fresh country air takes its toll.

After an afternoon of debate, this decision is unanimous. Food and drink in a restaurant near the accommodation.

At breakfast, our French host recommends that we visit ‘The Wilson’ before the end of our trip. No, it’s not a bar, it’s an art gallery and museum located on Clarence Street. The name derives from an Antarctic explorer who accompanied Scott on his 1912 expedition. Unfortunately, we did not achieve this; nor the even older Fountain of Neptune, fashioned on the Trevi in ​​Rome. Topping up our accumulator (of regret), we pass up the opportunity for a continental aperitif, amidst the splendor of the Imperial Gardens.

Don’t worry, after all, it’s only 365 days away.

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