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Horse Racing: To hell in a handcart? Let's make it a ride to remember.

Byline: Alastair Down

CHRISTMAS is coming to the Cotswolds, and quiet villages such as Lower Swell, Upper Slaughter and Guiting Power will undergo the annual upheaval as blood-up punters arrive with money in their pockets, heads full of hope and a desire to light every end of the candle.

Ritual is hugely important to festival regulars. The pleasure of meeting with the same raft of mates year on year, Wednesday night at the Ferret and 4 x 4, an early pint at the Hare and Hedge Fund Manager on the Thursday, the pre-racing counting of cash and the early evening search for a hole in the wall that has a heart.

It is mainly about the racing, the sheer concentration of star performers, but it is also a celebration of friendship and the familiar. Whatever storms blow out in the real world, the four days of the festival are harbour lights and home to so many of us.

But for all the desperate need to be there and to be part of it, there is nothing safe about the place.

If it goes well on the betting front then joy is indeed unconfined, because getting it right at Cheltenham provides levels of personal satisfaction that nowhere else can match.

But if it goes against you, with one bad day followed by another as desperation kicks judgement out of bed, then the meeting can rip the lining out of both your stomach and your wallet.

The plain degree of difficulty of finding winners is one of the reasons that the Cheltenham crowd is so generous to those who triumph. We expect reverses, so when we get a race wrong it doesn't prevent us from joining in the acclaim for the winner because we know that no victory is ever cheaply bought at the place.

Certain horses carry the crowd with them, such as Inglis Drever, but though he is absent there are still potential results that will have the place baying for more.

Binocular is one, and not just because he has long been favourite and is the runner round whom the betting battle will pivot on day one.

Famous colours help, as does the fact he is trained by a man regarded by the public as a good egg, but it is the McCoy factor that will come into play come 3.15 on Tuesday.

We have just seen him rack up his 3,000th winner, and do so with trademark charm and modesty. Yet we know that he has endured some barren festivals in the past that have led him to wear a face you would never tire of slapping.

Cheltenham is all about what it means not just in prestige but to the actual participants.

AP has long been one of jumping's biggest reasons to be cheerful and the tens of thousands on hand will need no second bidding to erupt in affection if he and Binocular grab the hurdling crown and lay out the first few layers in the process.

It is possible that Binocular will be the first of four alleged 'good things' in the flagship races. But it is rarely that simple.

The other day, a friend who should know better was comtemplating taking some 'enhanced' odds against the fourtimer of Binocular, Master Minded, Kasbah Bliss and Kauto Star.

Stand each race up individually and you can see the logic, yet somehow you know it can't happen, because if the festival were that straightforward it wouldn't be the festival. IN Ireland last week, one of the big owners expressed the fear that the current financial crisis may mean the meeting was a bit more subdued and lowerkey next week.

Piffle. This is four days of escapism and shared joys and we will get stuck into the happy counter-culture it provides with added relish and bravado - if we are all going to hell in the proverbial handcart then we may as well make it a memorable ride.

And while the Irish are deeply in the wars at home, their euros are worth more and will feel chunkier in their pockets than for many a year.

Live now, pay later will be the order of the four days. Assailed by financial gloom on all sides, now is the time for us all to fiddle while Rome burns merrily outside.

On the punting front, I am trying to come to terms with the fact that the growing list of stone-bonking certainties I have for the Festival Plate (nee Mildmay of Flete) is now up to three, but no matter - that's an exacta and money in the bank already. You have to look on the bright side!

There is even an ugly rumour that our illustrious website wants me to record a life-enhancing 'Late Wire From The Wolds' on the course on Sunday morning, which will mean you will not be short of plots for the needy and greedy, and even if they get beat you will at least have the satisfaction of the losers in your larder being fresh ones!

Watch Alastair Down take a guided tour round Willie Mullins' yard on racingpost.com

'Now is the time for us all to fiddle while Rome burns merrily outside'
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Mar 3, 2009
Words:870
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