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It's sofa so bad until Rodders and Al Ferof end hangover agony; EXCESS ALL AREAS Tom Kerr tackles the festival head on.

Byline: Tom Kerr

ON THE eve of Cheltenham the tips merge seamlessly with hyperbole and bluster. Everyone has a Champion Bumper whisper to share, folk have a cousin whose postie went down Twister's and reported Imperial Commander in tip-top shape, old friends slap each other on the back and bellow "Good to see you old boy, damn good to see you!" and young girls with silver glitter around their eyes chat flirtatiously with men three times their age.

My descent into the maelstrom of Cheltenham begins at a suicidal gallop. O'Neill's on Montpellier Walk seems as good a place to start as any and the two-man band playing crowd-pleasers like The Irish Rover and (I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles set a fine tone for the week ahead. The rest of the night is a haze of tequila and cigarettes.

The notes I take capture the spirit of the evening, which is just as well because manically scribbling in a notepad while downing pints of Guinness marks you out as a freak in any company. "Three-for-one shots, madness, must be illegal," one reads. Another: "Vet. Hurricane Fly. It's the only horse they're tipping by God!" Waking the next morning is an explosion of agony. At 8am I fall off the sofa I slept on and stumble to my feet. How did I get back to these digs? I remember the taxi, struggling desperately to remember how to convey meaning through language, but just opening and closing my mouth like a silent film actor.

The hangover lasts until 1.35pm, exactly. The wait for the Supreme Novices' is unbearable, not least since I arrive at the track at 9am, desperate for a hog roast.

The famous Cheltenham roar is a let-down. There is a bit of confusion about just when to roar, as it were, and we actually get three of them, two rubbish, one all right, but none comparing in any way to the genuine emotion, the anger and the delight, that greets a favourite jumping the last three lengths clear.

The hangover, anyway, departs when Ruby Walsh starts picking up on Al Ferof, the same Al Ferof who looks beaten on the turn, and powers up the hill to victory.

Jammy as anything that winner, as I back him only because my colleague Graeme Rodway says he'll win.

Rodders is a shrewd tipster, but on this occasion his reasoning is less than thorough. "I always seem to pick the Supreme winner," he says, gazing on the bookies board. "And Al Ferof is just ... jumping out at me."

Well, it worked for the bloke who won the Tote Jackpot. Freed from the pressure of finding my first winner, I can take in the surroundings. I've only been in the Best Mate enclosure on previous trips to Cheltenham, and my press pass gives me access to every nook and cranny of the track.

It's an incredible sight, Cheltenham.

There's tweed galore, enough to keep the royal family supplied for generations, but every aspect of life is represented here, unlike Ascot or Wimbledon or an FA Cup final.

There are sixties-vintage hippies, all wild hair and chilled vibes, and old boys in rag-time suits and wide-brimmed hats. Young guys who might be footballers drink pints of lager, young girls who might be models wobble on heels, and in the Guinness village the band sparks up a Johnny Cash cover.

It's a treat well-earned, and by God we're all enjoying it. So what if by the close of play my pounds 110 profit on Al Ferof has morphed, as if by magic, into an empty wallet? There's always tomorrow, after all.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Mar 16, 2011
Words:607
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