This is always a special week. The pinnacle of national hunt racing. The elite of sport. The best of craic, culminating in Paddy’s Day.
Cheltenham week is one of my favourite events of the year – of any year – and that of thousands all over these islands, but especially across the Irish Sea.
It is impossible to fully appreciate the love affair we Irish have with Cheltenham until you have made the trip to Prestbury Park, looked upon Cleeve Hill and stood amongst the crowds on the course, in the bars, in the town. It is like a home game for the Irish raiders. It’s like an afternoon at Croke or the Aviva but with the eyes of the world upon us.
It helps when the home team – albeit technically in the away strip – provides such joy to its supporters. The joy of watching winner after winner arrive with the magic letters ‘IRE’ next to their name never gets old. Nor does seeing the legends, not just of Irish sport, but of Irish life, collect their prizes in front of the cameras. The image of J P McManus collecting his fiftieth Festival winner this week, alongside the children of the late J T McNarmara will live long in the memory. As will Ruby and Willie Wednesday; the day they put the doubters in their place. Those doubters forgot that class is permanent in life.
All these things are all very special; alongside the huge crowds, the famous roar and the colossally competitive racing. But they are not the most special aspects of the Festival. It is the simple pleasures that makes Cheltenham like nothing else; that make it the greatest show on turf.
The civility. The genuine love for the sport. The emotional stories of syndicates, lost loved ones who inspired the passion. The passing of the torch from one generation to another. The love. The joy. The pain. Willie Mullins doffing his hat. The Racing Post. Alastair Down in the Racing Post. The bravery of the jocks. The green and gold of JP. Derek Thompson on Five Live. The real camaraderie; between friend and foe (witness Mullins and O’Leary in the winners enclosure this week). The honesty of the whole thing. The horses; the amazing, wonderful horses. And on Friday at 3:40, the christening of a champion whose name will live forever. The sheer magic of it from start to finish.
My dear friend and Festival partner in crime sent me a photo this week; a take away coffee from Cafe Nero and a copy of the trade paper competing for space on a rickety table outside a coffee shop in London. The essence of the Festival in one shot. Life goes on for the week, but not really. How could anything compete with Cheltenham? Come on. Wise up.