By Tony Stafford
What is it about the Cheltenham Festival that makes people tetchy? After three days there – we came back on Friday morning again - I had seen plenty of tetchiness around the place, enough to last me until next year.
It starts as you try to get into the main car park on the road coming in from the east. On Tuesday we – Harry and me – were there by 11.15, no chance. On Wednesday we made it 30 minutes earlier, are you joking? Once again we were half an hour earlier on Thursday with the same result. I’m tempted to go back again tomorrow, just for the reminder of how good it is in there.
The options we had were either lamely to follow the instructions of the car park jobsworths to “go down to the right”, thus ending at the foot of a hill and face the post-racing queue of queues, or swing back into the easy-getaway £15 a time private park in someone’s rather grand garden.
With each day the tetchy gene developed nicely. My day one highlight was always going to be getting to see Punjabi in the parade of ten former stars – Denman, Sizing Europe and Comply or Die among them. I did, but only just as after a succession of similar knock-backs for having the wrong ticket (Press Grade 3, no access anywhere, just through the doors), I caught a glimpse as he was about to pass from the bit where the unplaced horses are collected into the paddock.
An hour before the first race they thronged the parade ring, but I saw my chance to give him a pat. Just as I was about to land the affectionate touch, an old guy – yes even older than me but possessing the right armband – physically pushed me back, to Rachael Kempster’s obvious amazement.
After the ruling out in the days coming up to the race of Faugheen, no other Champion Hurdle winner was at the place until Annie Power’s victory a couple of hours later. For officialdom to prevent anyone connected to the horses to get near, so far before the first actual race, suggests over-the-top and unnecessary unhelpfulness.
But then, it’s all about the money. It’s hard to find accurate figures for days two to four, but it’s unlikely they will differ much from the opening day’s record of 67,770, making for a week-long figure well in excess of 250,000. [260,579 total for the four days. Ed.]
At £85 for Club admission which now gets you into some of the very swish new facilities, including parts of the new stand, it’s not cheap and the £55 for Tattersalls, where you might wish to go down to the Guinness enclosure and be so packed in that you struggle to lift your arms from your sides to consume said beverage, looks a bit of a take-on.
One pal, who makes his money in part from the totally illegal and equally accepted by the authorities market in tickets, reported he had a sale on Thursday when running into a quartet of lady racegoers looking for an alternative to the Best Mate enclosure (as far as I recall £30) which they’d entered and seen enough of long before racing started.
The course’s need to keep matters under control is understandable, but Michel Buckley, long-standing owner of a good few Festival winners, was not too chuffed when he found that for his two runners, one each on Wednesday and Friday, he could only enter the paddock for those races.
“I always like to go into the paddock every year to see my friends, but this time I had to make do with the races I was involved in”, he said. Buckley jointly owns horses with, among others, John Magnier, Mrs Susannah Ricci and Lord Vestey, former Cheltenham Chairman, who in Buckley’s opinion, with Johnny Henderson, Nicky’s late father, were the chief factors in the course’s rise from earlier darker financial times.
The effects of a new harsher regime even filtered down to impinge on the activities of two of the most prominent journalist/broadcasters of the last 30 years. Both John McCririck and Aussie Jim McGrath, neither doing actual broadcasts after the former’s demotion from Channel Four racing and Jim’s jettisoning out the Daily Telegraph door a couple of years back, were demoted from the real press box to the Media Centre. Would have sensed some degree of “tetchy” there, but Big Mac probably managed, with the help of the resourceful Boobie, his wife, to get into some desirable gigs and possibly earn some money.
Jim, happily, was OK, with his pal Steve Taylor getting him owner’s passes courtesy of John Ferguson. One day Steve was in the owners’ facility with its seafood counter, hot roast area and unlimited grub with three different badges all the same colour, entitling him to three goes in the paddock. I didn’t tell Buckers, he might have got a bit tetchy.
There was more than a little unpleasantness when Rich Ricci, the darling of the Cheltenham preview circuit, added to the Faugheen disappointment, by sanctioning the altered plans for Vautour from the Gold Cup to the Ryanair Chase because “he hasn’t been working at all well”. Having assured his admiring adherents from the previews that it was “Gold Cup or nothing for Vautour”, he looked a bit silly when Vautour paralysed a decent field in the shorter race.
All of a sudden the mid-Atlantic tones, the lengthy discourses on the prospects of the horses and the silly suits almost got on my nerves, God forbid, and made me a little bit tetchy – call me Titch Tetchy!
The football’s going well. In the way of the mainline sports, as against racing, media, all was as the big man intended. Many of the top names turned up for the annual once a year swill in the Cheltenham trough with the top accreditation and pontificated about racing as though they invented it. Nothing unusual there, and it gave them a few days’ break from slagging off Manchester City, Man U, Arsenal and their managers.
Meanwhile the racing fraternity was split over the Victoria Pendleton affair, although after she’d skilfully pointed the amazingly-accurate and willing Pacha de Polder around the course and finished a closing fifth, there was still condescension in the ranks.
I like Racing UK – you need to as they keep putting their prices up – but this was one time when some of the team might have been a little more generous with their compliments. Before the race, their collective view was that even an experienced rider would find it difficult as Pacha de Polder’s stamina was in question.
Afterwards, Jonathan Neesom described it as a great effort, but the normally shrewd Stuart Machin thought she’d given him a lot too much to do; but surely Stuart, if he’s a doubtful stayer that’s the way to get home. Another furlong and I’m sure they’d have won. McCririck on Attheraces’ Sunday Forum repeated his unwavering view that she shouldn’t have been allowed to ride, even after showing a degree of skill, amazing considering she’s only ever ridden one winner. The biggest thing for me, after she got within less than three lengths of the winner without ever once hitting the horse, was that she wasn’t even puffing, as befits an Olympic Gold medal winner.
Bet most of the other more practised but less talented amateurs in the race were blowing the house down after three miles, while the winner, Nina Carberry, on the favourite got home with the help of a very un-amateur like use of force, enough to win but also to earn her a seven-day ban. Maybe she’s a little tetchy, too. Wonder if you or anyone else you know had a tetchy moment during that momentous week?