There’s only one word to describe walking through the gates to The Cheltenham Festival, and that’s “Fuck!” I mean it is abso-bloody-lutely huge! Something like 60,000 people are here today (the majority of which have already passed through the Guinness village and emerged the other site - totally shit-faced – before the clock has even struck eleven). Oh, and while we’re talking big numbers, let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of pounds that will be won and lost by the time the Guinness village inhabitants vomit their way back out the gates come 6pm.
With poker being my only real gambling vice I really am a fish out of water here, and don’t recognise a single person regardless of their possible horse racing-related fame and/or fortune. There’s a panel of experts at the top table talking through each race, and while each one drops in some subtle link to a channel they present on or newspaper they write for, they might as well be contestants on Strictly Songs of Praise for all the chance they have of being recognised by me.
One face I do recognise, however, is Raj Modha – the winner of the Ladbrokes Million. How nice - I think - that Betfair would invite him into their private marquee. Of course there really is no such thing as a free lunch in the gambling game, and it turns out that Raj is here because he managed to clean up on the Betfair Casino site, scooping 3 jackpots on the slots for £120,000. I wouldn’t say the people from Betfair are manhandling him over to their betting booths to gamble, but let’s just say they wouldn’t mind it if he chose to have one or three ‘harmless flutters’ while in their company.
The most interesting activity for me right now is trying to suss out the people around me. I can’t help thinking that if only I was a degenerate gambling Irish alcoholic I’d be having a much better time. Oh, and before you stand up and shout “racist!” my previous comment is based purely on the simple fact that 95% of the people I have so far met have been 1) Irish, 2) Drunk, 3) Gambling. I’ll leave the rest of the maths to you.
The other observation is that everyone has a friend who has some ‘insider information’. Scribbled notes, beeping pagers, and hastily printed emails are strewn about the place, as various ‘friend’s dad’s mate’s daughters know someone who knows something about a nag that may or may not be in form for the 3:30pm’. I chortle in a smug fashion at their folly… just as my mobile beeps with a text from a friend who has discovered ‘something’ about one of the 2:35pm runners from a forum. Hmm… secret information, you say? Perhaps I’ll give it a go…
Heading outside for the first race of the day I’m struck by the fact that this is really just like being at a big fireworks display. There’s lots of standing round in the cold wishing you were at home, followed by brief bursts of interest accompanied by ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s. Ultimately, once the show is over, the mostly disappointed crowd shuffles off for a consolation burger (which in this instance I’ll wager probably contains a fair amount of last year’s winner).
It instantly reminds me of the losers’ walk from the WSOP main hall to the Rio exit. A shambolic parade of broken souls trudging along; their dreams in tatters – much like the discarded betting slips that pile up like ‘sad snow’ as the races tick by. However, rather than a never-ending stream of bad beat stories, the air here is filled with far more positive self-deluding statements, including such classics as, ‘I was winning until it fell over’ and ‘There’s always another one’. Indeed there is.
Back in the hospitality marquee things are deteriorating. Even though all drinks here are free, I still catch one particularly fat patron stealing my seat and surreptitiously tipping the remains of my lunchtime champagne into his own glass. Gypsy.
I’m trying to look and sound like I know what I’m doing at all times, and when a passer-by casually asks who I have in the next race I confidently reply, ‘Opera Mundi’. I say this because it was one of the horses mentioned in my recent text tip. He smiles, wishes me the best of luck, and staggers off (no doubt looking for some free champagne to ‘steal’). I feel rather pleased with myself… a sensation that lasts exactly three minutes, at which time I realise Opera Mundi ran in the previous race. Piss.
Having decided to discard the façade of knowing or caring about what’s going on I sit with a chap sulking in a corner. It turns out he is French and really wanted to bet on a horse called L’Antartique just because ‘it is French like me’. He was berated by his peers for such a childish reasoning, and told he should base his bets on form, previous form, the weight of the jockey, the weather, the ‘going’, and various other very important factors. Anyway, despite all that bollocks the French horse did win and this chap was feeling like a right Pepe Le Ploker who should have followed his heart and by rights should now be fanning himself with a wad of £50 notes. So much for form, eh?
A make a ‘horse radish’ joke that goes down so badly I’m not even going to repeat it here, and move on to annoy a different group of people. On the way across the enclosure I bump into a small child and turn to apologise, ruffling his hair in a playful fashion as way of apology. The surprising news is it’s not actually a small child, but Willie Carson – a jockey with an amazing tally of wins to his name. In the name of research I find his web site, which features so many impressive records and facts about the man that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. I can however tell you that he is available for corporate hospitality, weighs only slightly more than half my own weight and is – in my opinion – too small to exist. “Fuck me, that’s small for a human” offers a chap to my right, and I have to agree. The thought of him riding one of the magnificent beasts I’ve seen trotting around the paddock brings up only one image: that Ewok hanging off the back of an out-of-control speeder-bike in Return Of the Jedi. I’ll say no more on the matter.
It’s been an interesting day to be sure (see, I even sound Irish now) but the thought of the three-hour drive back to Essex, not to mention the additional hour finding my car in a field in a field in a field is going to take, sees me bow out before the final race kicks begins.
Before I leave there is however one thing left to do, and that’s to check my online Betfair account and see how all those tips panned out.
Good lord. I managed to turn £4 into £12. This time next year Rodney… this time next year.