Home where heart is for casual punters and full-time funsters
Racing fever will be a welcome distraction in Irish towns, writes Eamonn Sweeney
One banker this week is that there will be fewer Irish travelling to Cheltenham than at any time in the past few years. However, many of those forced to stay at home by the exigencies of the economic downturn will still be able to sample the festival atmosphere by engaging in a Home Cheltenham.
The Home Cheltenham has long been the way in which many Irish sports fans experience the Cotswolds shindig. And, recession notwithstanding, chances are that in most towns people will once more be participating this year.
Every small-town bookie shop will be packed for the duration of the festival and many of the nation's hard-pressed pubs located in the general vicinity of the bookies will receive the bonus of the kind of daytime trade generally only seen during the festive period.
It shows the emotional pull which the festival exerts on the heartstrings of the Irish sports fan that there are no real equivalents to the Home Cheltenham. There is no Home Galway Races, no Home Punchestown, no Home Derby, 2000 Guineas or Grand National. The only equivalent is perhaps one of those occasions when the Irish soccer team is playing in a major tournament but even that only lasts a relatively fleeting amount of time.
The Home Cheltenham, on the other hand, continues for the duration of the festival and by the end those who have stayed the whole distance will probably be as physically, emotionally and financially wrecked as those who travelled to the real thing.
And if the roar when the first race begins at the meeting is a great and glorious thing, so too would be the collective roars emitted in the nation's bookie shops at the same time if you could hear them all together. There is a distinct buzz about as that first race approaches and every punter fantasises about the possibility of going through the card every day, before brute reality forces a quick reappraisal at the end of day one.
In that half-hour before the festival begins, there are compelling reasons to expect every one of your choices to romp home. A day later and you're hoping that the All-Ireland club finals might come to your rescue.
There are guys who take the week off work just to experience the Home Cheltenham. And it can be a beguiling experience, not least because of the camaraderie between the occasional punters who have decided to become full-blown gamblers for the week. There is delight when it emerges that the quiet lad sitting in the corner has the 20/1 shot which is leading coming to the final fence. And there is a great deal of, perhaps unwonted, excitement when someone reveals that he knows a man who drinks in the pub of a man who has a nephew that walks one of the horses in the next one and told him that this is the race they've been building up to all year.
There is also, usually, a welcome lack of recrimination when the aforementioned horse finishes seventh.
I have had good Home Cheltenhams, I still don't know why I backed Sublimity to win the Champion Hurdle at 16/1 two years ago but it began a winning streak that meant I came home with three grand that evening.
And bad ones. Last year I was almost reduced to betting on multiple horses on the last day just so I could, at least once, hand in a slip and get some money back. At the same time the horses I had casually recommended to my mother, whose sole bets of the year come at this time, provided her with five winners in the first two days. Them's the breaks.
This year I fancy Binocular, Advisor and Drumbaloo, (and Big Buck's and Kauto Star to rescue me when these go wrong). So now you know who not to bet on.
Every year the telly people marvel at the huge numbers of Irish people at the meeting itself and think that this says everything about how special Cheltenham is for us. It says a lot, but not everything. Because the racing fever which will enliven small towns that normally might as well have tumbleweeds blowing down their main streets in the afternoon says a lot too.
Only Cheltenham can do this.