They say there is more Guinness spilt annually at the Cheltenham Festival than champagne quaffed at Royal Ascot. It’s a hoary old saw that probably isn’t true, but helps add to the sense of chaotic ribaldry with which National Hunt racing’s annual March jamboree is associated compared to its supposedly more genteel and moneyed Flat equivalent. In the coming days scenes of bawdy triumph and utter despair will unfold in what us hacks are obliged to refer to at least once per year as the great natural amphitheatre of Prestbury Park, where racing enthusiasts from both sides of the Irish Sea will convene for drinking, gambling and high-quality sport that is unrivalled in its sheer intensity for those of us who are into those kind of things.
While the Cheltenham Festival is a carnival of top-class racing, it is difficult to get away from the notion that without the attendant vices it would just be predominantly Irish men riding horses around an otherwise very sparsely attended field: a noble but ultimately futile pursuit that becomes a whole lot more fun with the introduction of hundreds of thousands of excitable, liquored-up punters clutching betting slips and roaring their fancies home. “When the fun stops, stop,” the bookies are obliged to tell us in their promotional material these days – although one gets the feeling that were your fun to stop three races in when you’ve just done your nuts on Tuesday’s Festival Handicap Chase, these less-than-rigorous enforcers of what does and does not constitute “fun” would not be at all adverse to you handing over even more money, money you might not necessarily be able to afford in an effort to recapture that warm and fuzzy glow of carefree optimism in which you found yourself enveloped before the tapes went up for the first race.