The annual lure of the Cheltenham Festival remains as exciting as ever

FESTIVAL FEVER -- the crowds at Cheltenham welcome HURRICANE FLY back to the winner's enclosure after he had won last year's Champion Hurdle (PHOTO BY: Tim Ireland/PA Wire)

FESTIVAL FEVER -- the crowds at Cheltenham welcome HURRICANE FLY back to the winner's enclosure after he had won last year's Champion Hurdle (PHOTO BY: Tim Ireland/PA Wire)

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As we count down the days to the greatest sporting show on earth, the annual lure of the Cheltenham Festival never ceases to amaze me.

This will be my 30th consecutive Festival (discounting the foot-and-mouth horrors of 2001). And considering I’ve seen every race live since the day BROWNE’S GAZETTE, trained by Michael Dickinson, stormed home in the Waterford Crystal Supreme Novices’ Hurdle of 1984, you’d think I’d be a hardened, seasoned cynic by now.

But not a bit of it. Like thousands of Cheltenham pilgrims up and down the country, I am as excited as ever.

I know already that I won’t sleep the night before the opening day. And that has nothing to do with staying in a different hotel.

I am going to the usual, extraordinary lengths of preparing for the week, poring through formbooks, facts and figures, constructing a portfolio of tips and, of course, plotting each day’s drinking, eating and socialising before and after racing!

I am even logging on, every day, to obscure websites for re-assurance that the weather will be fine, the going Good To Soft. So far so good, by the way. Mainly cloudy, one or two showers, bit of sunshine maybe on World Hurdle Day.

This is how the Cheltenham Festival consumes you. It removes reality and casts a mesmeric spell that creates an intoxicating mix of top-quality sport and racing-related bonhomie.

It’s a fair bet that most of you reading this will have sampled Festival Fever. And, like me, you will be in awe of the four-day feast.

But for those Festival virgins looking forward to their first visit to the Cheltenham cauldron, or for those not yet transfixed by the best Jumps racing in the world, here are a few tips for between now and Tuesday 11th March.

No, I’m not going to tell you what’s going to win the Gold Cup. But I will advise on how to make the best of your preparation, ahead of the Cheltenham Roar.

ACCOMMODATION -- if you’re staying over for the week (essential, in my book), you’ve probably booked your digs already. If not, Cheltenham itself is likely to be full. It is also expensive as hotels double, treble or even quadruple their normal prices for rooms. Try to find somewhere in the surrounding towns and villages and travel in each day. I would not even be averse to staying as far out as Bristol or Birmingham where top-brand hotels are available at very respectable prices. But make sure you sample the atmosphere in Cheltenham town centre both before and after racing on at least one of the days. It is magical.

PUNTING -- year after year, I am tired of reading advice warning punters to take their time and to pace themselves through the week. Rubbish! Get stuck in from the off. The week is punting heaven. Quality horses available at tasty prices, plus a mindblowing plethora of irresistible offers from all the big bookmakers. Yes, you still have to get your judgement right, but don’t be hamstrung by caution.

NON RUNNER, NO BET -- of all the aforementioned offers from the bookies, NRNB remains the stand-out. Worryingly, there were signs last year that one or two of the major firms are considering steering clear of what is, if exploited expertly, a punter’s licence to print money. But expect most to indulge from next weekend onwards, enabling us to back our selections without fear of them not running or going for an alternative race. It does mean that much your work must be done before the Festival starts. But that is no bad thing because once you get swept away by all that the week entails, there is precious little time for form study.

PREVIEW NIGHTS -- no other sporting event in the world has spawned such an extraordinary phenomenon as the Cheltenham Festival Preview Nights, set to be staged all over the country in the next fortnight. Trainers, jockeys, owners, punters, journos all pile in with their opinions and tips for each race. The nights vary dramatically in quality and popularity. Occasionally, they yield golden nuggets of inside information. More occasionally, they expose so-called experts as charlatans. If you cannot attend one, it is worth subscribing (for about a tenner) to a service run by Weatherbys, who will e-mail you, the very next day, a full report on a selected few.

PREVIEW LITERATURE -- if you’re not careful, you can be smothered to near strangulation by the colossal amount of news and views, both printed and digital, in the build-up to the Festival. But I find three publications indispensable. The ‘Racing Post Cheltenham Festival Guide’, updated each year and published this weekend, is a veritable work of art. Slickly produced and a minefield of information. But equally detailed and almost as magnificent is Weatherbys’ ‘Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide’, published next week, which concentrates more on the year-by-year trends for each race. Many still turn their noses up at trends as a tool for finding winners. Believe you me, for the Cheltenham Festival, it is sheer folly to ignore them. As an ally to the two books, fork out three quid or so on ‘Cheltenham: The Ultimate Gude’, produced by the ‘Racing Post’ and published next week. In one handy, concise newspaper that can be used as a regular source of reference, it features all the entries and form for the big races.

DRINKING -- utterly inevitable and unavoidable, whether you are toasting your winners or drowning your sorrows. I remember being mortified one year to find that my favourite Cheltenham pub, and one frequented regularly by racing people, The Crown on High Street, had been demolished. The clock is still there, but no boozer. These days, the town centre boasts any number of places likely to be immersed in racing from dawn till dusk. The Montpellier area is always heaving, and many pubs and clubs make a special Festival-themed effort to make you feel welcome. Some host live music, many show replay after replay of the day’s racing action on big screens. On the course itself, for me, it’s the Arkle Bar first, the rest nowhere.

THE IRISH FACTOR -- somehow, I have managed to get through this piece without one mention of the Irish. Which equates to disrespect of the highest order.

They do not flock over here in their battalions like they used to. But their infectious enthusiasm, racing knowledge, reckless gambling habits and sheer sense of fun and adventure remains the overriding factor that makes the Cheltenham Festival what it is.

Good luck -- and enjoy the craic!