Saturday, 22 March 2014

A note from a converted horse racing fan

Last Friday I was very lucky to wangle a day at the races at the Cheltenham festival, on Gold Cup day no less. As a former desperately avid, if slightly rubbish, horse rider I have had to keep my horse fixation at bay (forgive the pun) for many years through lack of time and knee cartilage. So at this point you would expect me to gush about how delighted I was to enjoy a full day of pure horse admiration. However, I have to confess that it was with some initial reluctance I joined the thronging masses pouring into Cheltenham race course last Friday morning. 

I can’t remember when my equine obsession started exactly, but horses were almost a full time part of my life from the age of 12.  When leaving my country bumpkin life in West Sussex to go off to the bright lights of university (in Watford), as a student I would often, after Quincey had finished, put on Channel 4 Racing, just to watch the parade of beautifully turned out horses. At the time, it was the closest I could get to the real thing and was a tiny, warm reminder of home. It was also at this point that I formed the belief that were it not for the huge array of bookmakers out there, then no one would bother with horse racing. This is not me making a comment on bookmakers, I have no issues with sensible gambling.  This is to do with the sheer lack of lovers of horse racing in its purest form, with no money involved. Generally speaking I don’t think I class horse racing as a sport and jockeys as athletes and I put this down to the seedy, money motivated edge that, for me, holds it back from its status alongside say show jumping or dressage. I felt like race horses were disposable and only fit for purpose.  

I am very pleased to say that my experience last week, delightfully, blew these beliefs to splinters. 
So what was the detonator responsible for the destruction of my underlying sadness about the prospect of a day at the races? Firstly the fantastic array of people I met. It’s hard to describe the Cheltenham crowd. Having previously once been to Ascot it’s easy to try and compare these 2 bigs horse racing events however, they are very different animals indeed and I don’t just mean the horses (sorry again). The fact that Cheltenham racecourse is situated in a natural amphitheatre and that the festival takes place in very early spring means the high winds have a huge effect on the potential fashion show. Namely that, for most of the ladies, decorative hats and fascinators are shelved in favour of a more practical uniform of tweed, felt hats adorned with pheasant feathers and barbours. 

So firstly I encountered some living, breathing, passionately hardcore, if a little worn out, race fans, who had been at Cheltenham all week and had been coming for years. They couldn’t get enough of the horses and the atmosphere. I immediately felt foolish that my preconception was that people would turn up for one day with the sole intention of gambling their entire net worth. I got talking to one of the many racing pundits who stroll around, dispensing tips, and asked who was his favourite for the Gold Cup. I was stunned at his response that, for him, it was a race to watch and believe it or not to enjoy, not to bet on.
It would also be pertinent to point out here that British horse racing as an industry is supported financially by one of the most prolific horse breeders in the world, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, of Dubai, a country where gambling is illegal. 
It was a pleasure to bathe in the rugged electricity of the atmosphere at the race course despite the constant icy breeze. Everyone is infectiously friendly and quick to tell you who their favourite horse is. Conversations start with the same ‘how’s your day, up or down?’ and always get the same response of ‘about level’. Gold Cup day was predictably eventful. Jockey Daryl Jacob, within minutes of having won his first race (he had already taken part in 14 that week) whilst riding to join the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (a race that has amusingly acquired the nickname 'the potato race' thanks to its sponsor) was thrown from his horse so forcibly he broke his leg, knee and elbow. The highlight of the day, if a little controversial, was when, in the Gold Cup race, an outsider, Lord Windermere, appeared from nowhere and, after a stewards enquiry, was named as winner of the Gold Cup. 

What can I say, I am converted, if a little bitter. Having always held the nickname of Annie, 3 guesses who I lost all my money on, a horse that didn’t prove quite so powerful on the day. 

Actual decorations in the hotel foyer where we stayed (our room was up 5 flights of stairs and there was no lift!)

A couple of before and after shots of Cheltenham racecourse..


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