Where would you rather be?

                                                           This is    NOT Cheltenham!

                                                          This is  NOT Cheltenham!

So Kim and I had the big discussion a few days ago; I think we had been putting it off but then we both realized a decision had to be made as time was running out: was she going to come to Cheltenham or not?  Now I can say, with complete honesty, that I would be the happiest person in the world if she was to be there on the day of the Champion Bumper; I can also say that if Kim was to take 5 (of her 20) vacation days to come to England she would most certainly not be spending four of them watching the Festival. As she said , if this was the Mauritius Derby he was running in then she would be happy to tag along and spend the other days on the beach but, as it’s Cheltenham in March, she’s going to take a pass.

                                             The real Cheltenham - we don't all win!

                                            The real Cheltenham - we don't all win!

She also said that this has been a ‘boy’s week’ for 20 years and she wouldn’t want that to change; this either means that she is the perfect wife or that she knows my friends too well and doesn’t plan to spend any time with them, or both. In actual fact, she has never met John or Bernard  (she has met the others) although she has spoken on the phone with John; she was captivated by his strong Northern Ireland brogue. There is no doubt that John is loquacious, a raconteur, never met anyone he can’t be friends with and probably the most innately intelligent person I know. He also gets lost at least twice during Cheltenham week and we spend the next morning putting together the puzzle of where he went after we last saw him. Bernard is nearing a peak of excitement at the moment as Cheltenham is so special to him; for years now we stand together on the first night of Cheltenham, raise a glass and ask a very rhetorical question: “is there anywhere else in the world you would rather be right now?”  Our normal routine is to go to the pub for 10.30am, mark John’s card (I gave him Garrison Savannah back in 1991 and he still thinks I know what I’m doing), catch a bus up to the course, meet some people, go into town straight after racing (Queens Hotel to start for sentimental reasons) and have the craic until we lose John, conduct a quick but fruitless search for John and then relax and have a few more drinks. 

On the Thursday a great friend, Ian, comes down with his son, David, Cobb and Matthew and then on Friday we retire to the pub back in Swadlincote to watch the racing well away from the madness that is Gold Cup Day. We all have those friends who, when you spend time with them, somehow cause you to drink too much; Ian is that person for me. We also embody the archetypal male friendship: our phone calls last for 60 seconds because we have nothing to say but then we sit in the pub for hour upon hour until we’re thrown out!

Every day feels and looks the same year to year and that, honestly, is the beauty. We can do exactly the same thing but it never loses its excitement and the sense of being somewhere special and being very lucky to be there. Kim’s brother came over in 2012 and experienced it for himself; he has no interest in racing but is always up for an adventure. He loved it but was a little taken aback by the English mode of drinking; something I had never really considered before. In America college students (and Brian, 15 years later, is still a student at heart) tend to ‘chug’ their beer until they either collapse or fall asleep; a process that normally takes a few hours. Brian was amazed that we drank so much more slowly but that we kept going for much longer; I like to think it was part of his maturation but the jury is still out.

For anyone who is contemplating staying over in Cheltenham  for the Festival then not only are you too late for 2014 but probably for 2015 as well. I stayed in a bed and breakfast in 1990 and booked it year to year as I left until 2008 when the owners decided to sell it as a private house. The sheer selfishness of this was shocking but, having got over the initial impact, spent several hours on the hopeless quest to find a room for 2009. We got by in a fashion in 2009 but struck gold in 2010 when we were matched with a private family who open up their house to guests over the Festival. Jane and David own a beautiful house ½ mile outside the Town Centre and, in their delusion, were happy for us to stay. They have absolutely no interest in racing but are great and patient hosts and actually seem to like us – we have been there since 2010 and we all have individual rooms but have to share the family bathroom. Over the years they have regaled us with horror stories of previous Festival guests; we took these subtle warnings as to our behaviour on board and have, touch wood, an impeccable record to date (although, like Mitt Romney’s opinions, this can change in a heartbeat)

I think my first Festival was what solidified my love; I had been looking forward to going to the Festival for years but that 1990 Festival really brought out what was, for me, the great uncertainty and the magic of National Hunt racing.

Kribensis was a Flat Horse, trained by a top Flat Trainer and owned by the largest owner in Flat racing (Sheikh Mohammed) ;  I was convinced , at the time, that it would be disastrous for National Hunt racing if Kribensis were to win the Champion Hurdle and would take away some of the magic. How can this speed bred Flat horse be running against and beating these strong NH horses at Cheltenham? Kribensis won comfortably and it spoilt my first day at the Festival; two days later a virtual miracle occurred and, literally, brought me to tears (and I never even backed him). Norton’s Coin was a decent horse and was trained in Wales by a dairy farmer, Sirrel Griffiths. It was around these fields that Norton’s Coin was trained and you can’t much more rustic or more removed from Sheikh Mohammed (owner of Kribensis) than that; Norton’s Coin won the Gold Cup at 100/1. Once everyone had got over the shock, the cheers went up; this is the essence of NH racing where every owner, every trainer has a chance to compete and the impossible can and does happen. I guess, at its core, this is how my dream began!

Some people on the Talking Horses forum have been looking at the website and have said some very nice things. For me, the most gratifying is how it reminds them of their own experience as a group of 10 owners of Raise the Beat in 2011 and how the excitement built prior to the big day. Raise the Beat was well fancied for the Bumper but , unfortunately, was injured during the race and was off the course for some time after. It’s a salutary story and the Bumper is a tough race but I still get the sense that they loved every minute of the build up and of the day itself. They probably think we are mad to plan to run Bay of Freedom but they have been very gracious and their communications have only added to my enjoyment of this journey.

Talking of communications, I am expecting a very important one from the Fahey’s in the next week; nothing to do with Bay of Freedom (although please feel free, Peter) but instead news of the birth of their third child , due tomorrow (Jan 30th). I have now got my gift planned and there are two losers in this particular event: Peter and the baby; they are getting nothing. Instead, Ber deserves to pamper herself and Kim and I want to help in that regard. We are assuming that she is stocked up on alcohol for the next few months and is licking her lips at the prospect so we are going in a different direction: a day of beauty. Ber can look forward to a relaxing massage and possible new shiny finger and toe nails; after that she can get back to the serious business of sending me some photos and invoices.