Thirty-seven hours, 17 minutes, two taxis, two aeroplanes and three trains brought me from Melbourne, Australia, to a race night in Cheltenham, with only 30 minutes to spare before the first race of the 2014 Festival. I feel weak-limbed and giddy, which is the way most people finish their three days in the Cotswolds. The Gloucestershire taxi was driven by a charming chap, who tells me all about a revolutionary design of manhole-cover that he has patented. He is hoping to find a wealthy investor. I told him he’d never have a better chance as the town will be crammed with people dedicated to pouring money down the drains during the race night. Prowling outside the race night venue were a hundred cockney and scouse touts, wanting either your money or your race night tickets. Once I managed to get past them unscathed, I was then bombarded by a second wave, the so-called gypsy ladies with their ‘lucky’ heather. I made for the See You Then Bar above the parade ring, and asked for a pint of bitter. The barman smiled, apologetically, and said ‘Bitter?’ in a strong Scandinavian accent. ‘Yes.’ ‘I am sorry.’ He shrugged. ‘I don’t know this word.’ We eventually got there, by sign language, and I gulped the pint down while I watched the first race on the big screen behind the parade ring. Sitting on a bench nearby, an extremely elderly man with a feather in his trilby waved his aluminium walking stick in the air like a shillelagh. While I was strolling through the lawns of the Club Enclosure, I was struck by the hordes of plain-clothes security staff discernible by their clumsy green ear-pieces. It must be to do with The Queen’s visit later in the week, I thought to myself. It was only in the afternoon that I twigged that the hundreds of MI5 operatives were actually race night enthusiasts, there for the same reason as me, enjoying another exciting race night. I greedily backed an outsider in the Champion Hurdle, and am more indignant than I am entitled to be when it ran as the form book suggested it might, as if dragging an anvil behind it. Late in the afternoon I tried to recoup some of my losses with an optimistic bet on the last race, only to find that the Tote system had collapsed. Along with tens of thousands of other would-be punters, I battled towards the octopus-handed bookies on the rails, but there was no way through the throng. My horse lost anyway, so I saved money, but the frustration lingered. Overcrowding is always the bugbear of the Cheltenham Festival; the Tote’s technical incompetence only compounds it.
The next morning, at breakfast, I aggravated my wisdom tooth eating a dodgy bacon butty. I am tempted to go back to my room and climb back under the covers. Instead, I opt for the hardcore experience of the Courage Enclosure, the cut-price party zone on the far side of the track from the main grandstand. It is mayhem: 20 minutes to get a drink, and another 15 minutes to put on a bet. The Queen, resplendent in electric-blue tweed, presents the trophies, then strolls back through the parade ring, stopping to gossip with friends. I decide to wander to a less hectic part of the race night venue. There’s a burger bar, a Tote kiosk and a loo, and no queues at any of them! Just a few hundred people stand on a knoll with a fine view up the straight to the finish: it is like being at a point-to-point, smack in the middle of the biggest race night in the world. Un-cramped and un-hustled, I relax enough to back two short-priced winners. Economically insignificant , but good for the psyche. Feeling flush, I gatecrash a box at the top of the grandstand to watch the last two races in luxury. The Tote system crashes again, and there are angry mutterings in the queues about the future of their monopoly. Everyone is convinced that they have been denied putting on winning bets, and naturally no one at the race night has been denied a loser.