One of the most thrilling fixtures in the racing calendar is the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival, a meeting that manages to pull in crowds from every town and country, my family being no exception. Watching my relatives prepare for this event is in many respects like watching a race itself, as the time draws closer and closer and the suspense builds up and up. For us, the Festival creates as much anticipation as others will experience awaiting Christmas Day.
Early preparations start promptly at the beginning of the season when the family draws together all their funds to investigate whether tickets can be purchased for the forthcoming meeting. After several hours of exhausting arithmetic and checking of the accounts, the family all decide, as predicted, to purchase the tickets anyway (usually without consideration of the careful calculations). It’s a good job my father is an accountant!
In September, when the sacred tickets are delivered, the count down begins and a plan of action is prepared. All males cease any sort of usual activity in order to consider their "Ten to Follow". This involves the consumption of much beer, many take-aways and devouring the contents of every printed document relating to races printed in the preceding twelve months. Lists of thirty potential horses are gradually reduced to fifteen, and then to twelve. At this point, the process defeats them and they duly pay up for several lines. These twelve horses must be avoided by any other serious race-goers as they invariably end up being retired or shot - you have been warned. All females discuss the development of a demanding diet regime in order to shed those unwanted but immovable extra pounds before the big day, but no further action is taken at this stage. All family members partake in the early placing of Internet bets, in the hope of wide odds and a big win.
Christmas arrives, when family members all receive cunningly disguised envelopes containing either the very predictable tickets or tote vouchers.
In the New Year, my aunt and mother embark on The Diet as discussed many months previously. This involves the mysterious but apparently necessary counting of ‘points’. Lettuce and fruit are major features of this torture session and appear with monotonous regularity over the next few weeks. Alcohol is banished – or do I mean vanished? - from the fridge, which is probably just as well as funds are now worryingly low. My mother opens the protracted negotiations necessary to arrange for her to skive off work for at least a couple of the festival days. My aunt is by now doing so much overtime that complaints are registered that she has taken up residence at work.
By February, the sounds of ante-post bets being torn up resound, and yet more ante-post bets are judiciously placed. My family has now succeeded in backing every horse in the Gold Cup – well at least someone will have a winner!
March at last, and final preparations are being made. My aunt lays in a supply of chicken chests and buns, signalling the end of the long diet. Warm clothes are sent to the dry-cleaners and, just to be on the safe side, summer T-shirts are hunted out as a back up.
The great day dawns at last, and the first job is to set the video for Channel Four to capture the moments permanently. Sandwiches are made, flasks prepared and the party sets out.
Travelling along the well-worn route is usually conducted in silence whilst all passengers become engrossed in the daily newspapers for those last-minute tips. This is a testing time for the driver who is torn between the safety of his party and reading the paper over the front-passenger’s shoulder. He is put out of his misery once the racetrack is in sight because now he can pick up the Festival radio programme. As the car descends down Cleeve Hill, the passengers invariably gasp and remark "Ah, Mecca!" The car is parked with little regard as to how it will ever get out of the mud bath that is the lot of the ordinary punter. My family can only look on with sighs of envy as members glide serenely past to their designated parking spaces. No champagne for my family, just sandwiches and a mysterious brown substance commonly known as ‘flask’. No matter what goes into the thermos, it all comes out brown and unfit for human consumption. Some sandwiches are hurriedly eaten whilst others are stuffed into pockets as discreetly as possible.
Eventually, the party gains entrance but there is no time to be lost, and they must move quickly through the "Winged Ox" in order to secure their usual pitch. The stand gradually fills up until no movement is possible. At this point my uncle usually remembers that last minute bet which he simply must place. He is usually told in no uncertain terms to forget it.
At last, the horses come out for the first race and the tension becomes almost unbearable. Will the starter never raise the tapes? A mighty cheer goes up from the crowd but this is not for the horses, it is for themselves, for they have done it – they are finally here at the Festival!
All too soon the day ends, but the rituals continue. Having got the car out of its customary ditch, the family drives home in contented silence. Later, there is the Gloucester Echo to be read, baths to be run and form to be studied in preparation for the next day’s events. The video can be scrutinised to clarify the inevitable arguments that yes, your horse was fourth and not third, you’ve lost your money. The alarm is set and an early night is in order, for tomorrow it all begins again. And me? How will I spend my Festival? At school of course, I’m too young to go!