Why the Cheltenham Festival is the best week of the year
THE beginner’s mistake is to search for Nirvana employing only GPS coordinates.
Or to imagine Cheltenham Racecourse as no more than an exalted field of dreams lazing, verdant and lush, in its Cotswold cradle.
Though Prestbury Park may physically reside in Gloucestershire, a mere Kauto Star gallop due south of Bishops Cleeve, its essence cannot be located employing an aid as glacial as Google Maps.
Because Cheltenham – at least for those four days in March when it becomes the polestar around which so many dreams giddily orbit – is a place of no fixed abode; or rather it is not a place at all.
The Festival is more than anything else a feeling: an ecstasy of the soul, a spiritual banquet, an adrenalin shot to the marrow, something at once essential, glorious and all-consuming.
Cheltenham is memory and anticipation, hope and despair, beauty and tragedy, an experience both personal and communal.
It is a Class A drug, addictive high-grade escapism, what the racing writer Alistair Down calls the “madcappery of the Festival”.
It is an excuse for grown men to morph into unashamed, irresponsible adolescents, a time-tunnel back to childhood.
Cheltenham is a friend to be shared with friends.
For many of us who are closer to beaten dockets than novice hurdlers, it is a route map of a life lived: from schoolboy slinking into the dingy paradise of the betting shop, to a band of brothers’ ritual Cheltenham Tuesday gathering in Cassidy’s on Dublin’s Camden Street, a cathedral of pints, dreams, memories and affection.
And, invariably, the high altar where too few prayers are answered.
I have travelled over many times, the journey in from our base in Stratford – through a rustic paradise, a tunnel of beauty – as lyrical, spine-tingling and gorgeous as if gifted by the Bard of Avon.
Cheltenham is National Hunt Mecca and it should be the duty of anybody who has ever studied a formguide to complete the Hajj, to visit the sacred shine at least once in their lifetime.
The Festival arrives at the end of an ache of anticipation, after a too-slow, crawling countdown, that begins at that Friday dusk 362 days previously when you come to understand, with a crushing sense of desolation, an emptiness beyond words, that the Grand Annual, the last of the 28 races has been run, that a great void has opened, that this celebration of living is over for another year.
It returns eventually, mercifully, like the swallows, signalling, even in mid-March, the arrival of a blazing emotional summer, a heatwave of happiness.
And for four days, shaded by a great rainbow of every heart-quickening emotion known to man – elation, despair, lust, terror – there is this sense of being truly alive, of living both on the very edge, yet at the very epicenter of all that really matters.
The fortunes of Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh, Vautour and Annie Power come to govern our universe, trite insignificances like conflict, pestilence and formation of government properly relegated to the margins.
It is all-consuming. When news of Faugheen’s Festival-sidelining injury broke last month, it felt as devastatingly unfair, as denuding as a World Cup stripped at the 11th hour of Lionel Messi.
Fate had thieved an equine genius away, a reminder the concept of an imperious animal is an illusion. The truth about these magnificent creatures is that they are as brittle as ancient artefacts.
Here is a theatre of war, with horse against horse, jockey against jockey, punter against bookie, liver against alcohol, a thrilling cacophony of man and beast straining for immortality.
Or maybe simply seeking to survive.
Cheltenham is a titanic banquet for the senses with the colosseum of the imagination as the primary feasting hall.
It is a place of ghosts, echoes and immortal creatures, two-legged and four.
Cheltenham has its own timeless soundtrack: a symphony of Peter O’Sullevan’s velvet, beseeching tones, the snorting nostrils of champions, equine fireballs like Arkle, Dawn Run or Istabraq engulfing the rising ground, and the din – a cascade of human yearning – pouring down from the stands.
Oh, the surge, at 1.30 on Tuesday afternoon when the starter raises the tape and frees both the entrants in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and those of us hyperactive with craving to gallop toward our destiny, is like one of those waves for which surfers await a lifetime.
Over the four days, I will feel my eyes well with the salty turbulence that only the greatest sport can summon.
Because it matters so much, because the emotional investment dwarfs even the betting-ring transactions, because of the nobility of combat, the danger, the hopes made and broken, because of all these things the tears fall in a great Niagara of release, as both a great happiness and a lament.
On this immaculately manicured West Country meadow over which Cleeve Hill stands sentinel, horses will perish as Our Conor did two years ago.
And those stoic titans of the weighing room will risk life and limb: three years ago JT McNamara travelled from Ireland awash with hope; when he returned it was to face into life of paralysis.
For those in the arena, peril co-habits with enchantment.
For those of us on the margins, there is the vicarious thrill a betting-slip instils.
That and the knowledge that here are the very best days of our lives.