There I stood amongst tens of thousands of racegoers at the Cheltenham Festival earlier this week defying Coronavirus when it suddenly struck me - I wondered how many punters enjoying this day of racing knew as little as I did about horse racing and betting?
Naturally enough, as a consummate ‘blagger’ on occasions such as this, only my sister, brother-in-law and ‘er indoors could possibly have guessed that I am a stranger to the finer points regarding horseflesh. Indeed, I only had it recently explained to me that a horse generally has a long neck, a tail, and a leg on each corner. As for the process of putting money on this or that nag to finish first in a race or to back it ‘each way’ which is something that I do… as in, last of the big spenders! Happily, my sister's old man John, is an absolute wiz at this sort of thing and so in the manner of a primary school teacher painfully explaining to his dullest charge the basics of sums, John did his best to enlighten me as to the wicked ways of betting on the horses. Indeed, initially I was allocated the very important task of holding the money and betting slips as he placed bets from our ‘kitty’ money on various horses with a surprisingly high percentage of winners amongst them. “How did you know that horse was going to run so well?” - I asked him. With this he tapped the side of his nose in a conspiratorial manner, leading me to believe that he might have had some inside information rather than just following his favourite tipster in the Racing Post.
As I have already exhausted my limited knowledge of horse racing, I will confine the rest of this column to what I am good at, and that is - people watching. Firstly, National Hunt Racing and Flat Racing are only similar in the fact that horses are involved. Indeed, many years ago I went on a corporate jolly to Royal Ascot and didn’t enjoy it half as much as I did at Cheltenham.
Over four days in March the Cheltenham Festival both dominates and celebrates horse racing over the jumps and even for the uninitiated such as my good-self it really is something very special. From local Gloucestershire race-goers with that distinctive burr in their voices via ruddy faced country squires and plummy city boys on-the-lash it really is great fun. Unlike my bro-in-law John, I thought once you’ve seen one nag jump over some fences, you really have seen it all I found; so why not take time out to stare at women wearing very little clothing? I understand that some Cheltenham purists find it vulgar that young women turn up at the races dressed as if they were going to a nightclub. Personally, I think this sort of clothing (or lack of!) lifts morale. Well, it does mine - and anyway what is wrong with a very short, strapless, and part frontless frock, no tights and poorly applied fake tan on a great day out - especially if this ‘GDO’ is during the iconic festival week at Cheltenham?
I think that you could break down the people who attend the Cheltenham Festival into a number of different groups. Firstly, the professionals who are paid to be here, racing people, the media, bookies, agents and the like; you see them around and about the town all week, prosperous looking, happy in their own skin, beautifully dressed and with an absolute confidence in their own superiority.
Then you have what I would call ‘proper punters’ like my sister and brother-in-law who go to the races regularly and Cheltenham is their mid-March Mecca, where old friends meet up and lie to each other as to how much money they’ve taken off the bookies and how they are on a winning streak because they have this “new system.” They are the backbone of racing, and John told me last night over a pint or six, that it is only when you have been soaked to the skin at a minor race meeting at Salisbury attended by 237 other souls and lost your shirt into the bargain, do you truly appreciate Cheltenham in all its glory.
My third category is what I call the ‘dilettante set,’ well heeled young men in painfully tight suits with very loud voices and girlfriends whose names always end in an ‘A’ as in Amanda - Samantha - Miranda - Cassandra and er, Tracy. These irritating people should not be mixed up with those who in the past would be known as the ‘county set.’ Covered from head to toe in expensive suiting, they favour autumnal colours such as russet, shot pheasant and burnt-orange, plus dark greens and browns in a sort of hairy tweed like material. Their womenfolk have deep, ultra-posh voices, rather like HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and are always good fun. This is because they don’t give a bugger what anyone thinks of them and have a surprising affinity with ‘proper punters,’ as they really care about horse racing as well, and see it as more than just an excuse to show off and splash the cash. I like these people, although they would probably find me to be a “dreadful little man.”
And how do I know this? Because I had to interview one of them once and that’s what she called me. So how did I get on in my battle with the bookies the other day at the races? Well, I did alright, had a great day out and still brought home my pocket money. Whilst ‘Uncle John’ - it appeared won over 300 quid, but I’m not to tell my sister. Of course I won’t John; but what’s it worth?