As a self-confessed sports nut, I have spent a fair amount of time and money over the years watching live sport. And I have been fortunate enough to attend many of the events you may expect to find on the bucket list of your typical British sports fan (#NotSoHumbleBrag alert!)
Several of these events were experienced as an emotionally invested supporter, such as England vs Wales at Euro 2016 and the 2017/18 Ashes down under. Whilst some were as a neutral, excited to witness a great team or athlete at the peak of their powers – marvelling at Messi inside the Camp Nou as part of that great Barcelona side of 2011 and beholding the brilliance of Bolt in the 200m final at the 2012 London Olympics are two examples that immediately spring to mind.
Then there are those occasions which are just as much about the spectacle as the sport itself. For example, watching a match on Centre Court at Wimbledon, or being amongst the vast crowds at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. However, there aren’t many sporting events that I’ve attended which have somehow managed to combine all these elements at once, yet the Cheltenham Festival is one that does exactly that.
You see, this isn’t your standard day out at the races. Sure, the incessant hyperbole that dominates the media build-up, including the tiresome trope about the magic of Cheltenham, can get a bit much at times, but it is entirely justifiable when you consider why the Festival is so special. The atmosphere is electric, and the indelible ‘Cheltenham roar’, which greets the start of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle as proceedings get underway on Tuesday, is goosebump inducing.
The location is fantastic, with great views of Cotswolds hills in the distance, whilst the racecourse design brilliantly embraces the natural amphitheatre in which it is situated. And of course, the racing is of highest calibre. When you watch the exhausted runners and riders make the climb up the infamous Cheltenham hill towards the finish line, you can’t help but be in awe of the intestinal fortitude displayed.
Sure, the Grand National remains the biggest horse race in Britain based on television viewing figures, as well as its susceptibility to be the subject of an office sweepstake in the name of organised fun by a Brent-esque boss, but Cheltenham is about so much more than its own flagship race (the Cheltenham Gold Cup) and the multitude of high-class races throughout undoubtedly make it the pinnacle of jump racing.
And so, for one week in March, Cheltenham is besieged by an army of punters dressed in tweed. Admittedly, some spectators will know very little about horse racing, whilst some of the bars in the town – which start filling up around the time most people start eating their breakfast- may have more of a football away day vibe to them at times. However, in my experience, those who visit during Festival week are more prone to mass frivolity than fighting (even if many of the men do look like extras from Peaky Blinders)
Yes, there will be one or two idiots (usually wearing the free scarves handed out to them with a betting company logo adorned on them) who will shout asinine things like ‘come on, horse!’ during a race, as a day of drinking starts to take over their faculties. Yet they are still decent enough to applaud the winner, even when they have invariably backed the wrong horse beforehand.
Though I must admit, having a few pints with my mates at Cheltenham, on a day when you’d normally be at work, is a big part of the appeal to me, and is still my favourite form of escapism. And after the last twelve tumultuous months, I think there will be many of us who could use a bit of that right now.
It’s still strange looking back now at last year’s Festival. Despite the cautionary tone surrounding the event (including all the blokes actually washing their hands after using the toilet for once!) it seemed unfathomable to many that this would be one of the last big sporting occasions staged in the ‘old normal’. Let alone consider that my chance to attend my tenth Cheltenham in a row would be made impossible by a third national lockdown.
But hopefully next year I will have the chance to make the pilgrimage to Prestbury Park once more, and if you are someone who hasn’t been before, you really should join me. It will be unlike anything else on your bucket list – trust me, I should know.