This week I did something everyone should do once in their lifetime: I walked the course at the race night in Cheltenham. There is no special dispensation required, it is an opportunity open to anyone with a ticket for National Hunt’s greatest race night; the morning before racing starts, you simply slip under the rails and head off. Since most Cheltenham-goers restrict their perambulations to the hard yards between the bar and the Tote desk, not many take advantage of this glorious stroll. Today, as three of us ambled round, reining ourselves in down the long, long slope, panting up the hill and agreeing that anyone who attempts to jump fences that substantial aboard a couple of tons of horseflesh should be referred to a psychiatrist, we had the two and a half miles of undulating Cotswolds almost to ourselves. Apart, that is, from a steady stream of jockeys jogging round in sweat suits and a chatty Irish stable lad who told us he was walking off the effects of the evening before, when he had won a fortune at a race night in Cheltenham, and celebrated accordingly (and, judging by the evidence lingering on his breath, crash landed in a Hudson River of Guinness). Plus, the official hole-filling team, a party of some 30 Sikhs patting at the ground with spades, who have cornered the market in smoothing out hoof ruts at every race night in the country.
The most astonoshing feature of the race night was reserved for the finish line. There, standing out against the green turf, we counted half a dozen patches of dust, seemingly marking the final resting place of race night enthusiasts. Course officials turn down requests to sprinkle ashes there, but still the patches arrive as regularly as a Ruby Walsh winner. This suggests that at least half the people walking the course must be doing so like the characters from The Great Escape, with ashes of loved ones secretly spilling from the bottom of their trouser leg.