As the modern world evolves, some sporting institutions appear to be on the wane – but the Cheltenham Festival continues to get bigger and better, says Nick Wilby.
Springtime in Britain used to be when three annual sporting events the viewing public never missed took place – the FA Cup Final, the Grand National and the Boat Race.
These days, it appears few people outside the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge care what happens on the River Thames, football’s FA Cup has been left behind by the Premier League and Champions League, and the Grand National is now overshadowed by the Cheltenham Festival.
But why is four days of horse racing in the picturesque Gloucestershire countryside becoming a bigger deal year upon year?
The fact is that the Cheltenham Festival, running this year from March 12 to 15, is marketed as the Olympic Games of horse racing, generating a unique atmosphere enjoyed by all walks of society from betting shop punters to the gentry to TV celebrities.
Whereas the Grand National suffers from an image problem whereby, as a one-off annual spectacle, it has become tainted by equine fatalities, Cheltenham is remembered instead for thrilling racing and recognisable perennial heroes.
Part of its appeal is that instead of relying on weekend dates to attract its 50,000-strong daily crowds, the meeting takes place from Tuesday to Friday when, during the daytime at least, it stands alone as a sporting highlight.
The Cheltenham executive should be applauded for not bowing to pressure to move their feast to encompass a weekend. But their product is strong enough for that to be unnecessary with many people basing their whole week around the Festival – taking time off work to attend it is as natural to many as not having to clock on at Christmas.
Basically, everything about the Cheltenham Festival works.
The format has changed little since the 1960s, the biggest difference coming in 2005 when three days became four, with Friday added to the traditional Tuesday to Thursday gatherings and seven new races introduced, all of which have been retained.
The venue is stunning, in a perfect natural amphitheatre at the base of the Cotswolds; the course lends itself to thrilling races with a long uphill finish that produces many a close battle; and many of the same protagonists keep on returning, doughty champions trying to fend off the latest batch of pretenders to the crown.
This year, perhaps the most famous equine hero of the recent era, Kauto Star, will not be vying for the jewel in the crown, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for the first time in seven years.
Twice a winner and twice placed in his six attempts, he is now in happy retirement and embarking upon a new career in dressage, leaving old rivals Long Run and Imperial Commander to take on the mantle of the housewives’ Gold Cup choice.
They will aim to resist the younger brigade, headed by Bobs Worth, Sir Des Champs and Silviniaco Conti, with thousands of people around the UK sure to be planning a Friday afternoon flutter, both on the racecourse itself and elsewhere, desperate to discover who triumphs.
You wouldn’t get that happening for any other event – and it’s what makes the Cheltenham Festival so special.
Article written by Nick Wilby from Cheltenhamfestival.net.