As I sat in the betting office on Tuesday morning, in that moment when all things were still possible, a guy from Paddy Power was on one of the screens chuntering away about a horse named Labaik in the Supreme Novices Hurdle.
He might have refused to start in his last three races, said the buck, but if he does start he'll have a real chance. So why not wait by the counter until they're just about to start, see what he looks like and then throw on a few quid. Jesus, I said to myself, these hoors will try and get you to bet on anything. I passed no heed and put my money on Melon.
Labaik's subsequent 25/1 victory was like something that the excellent writer Declan Lynch might have dreamed up to demonstrate the follies of betting. In fact the whole first half of the festival sometimes seemed like it was being controlled by The Dark Mage of Athlone in order to prove his point about gambling.
It's not a point I wholly agree with. I always bet on Cheltenham because it adds immeasurably to the experience. The sensation of involvement is key to enjoying the racing. As a friend of mine who I bumped into on Wednesday morning said, "I don't mind if I make a small loss over the course of the four days. I'll have had the entertainment of it." That's the way I look at it too. Neither of us are regular punters. In the same way that a county final will bring out people who haven't seen their local team play all year, Cheltenham brings out people who wouldn't be able to tell a Placepot from a Yankee.
Having the few quid on enabled me to get the full benefit from that moment in the Mares Hurdle when Apple's Jade, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag came over the last fence together. I had Apple's Jade, and myself and the kids, just in from school, cheered to the echo as Bryan Cooper got him home. I may regret this act of parenting when I starve to death because they've taken my old age pension and wagered it on the 2.40 at Wincanton, but at that moment we felt very good indeed.
On the other hand when both Singlefarmpayment and Neon Wolf lost by the narrowest of margins I was more inclined to agree with the view of betting as an invention created to confound and torment humanity. That's why I was sighing with relief when Might Bite reached the final fence in the Royal Sun Alliance Chase ten lengths in the clear.
Just the week before, I'd shown the daughters the very first horse race I can remember watching, the 1973 Grand National when gallant top weight Crisp led all the way round before blowing up on the run-in and losing in the final strides to Red Rum. I wept - I was five after all - and never really forgave Red Rum, praying each time this 'folk hero' and 'national institution' went out that he'd lose.
As Nicky Henderson's Might Bite led for most of the way, daring the opposition to catch him and jumping like a stag, I actually thought to myself, 'this is like Crisp.' It felt as though I'd conjured into existence what happened next. Like Crisp, Might Bite weaved off course at the last and this time it was Whisper who made up the ground and headed the front runner with the winning post in sight. At 49 I prepared to weep again.
Only this time there was a happy ending. Somehow Might Bite straightened himself out with the assistance of Nico de Boinville and fought back. The two horses passed the post locked together in what looked like a dead heat. But Might Bite was the winner. I told myself that no one could have been so unlucky as to lose three photo finishes in a row at Cheltenham, but of course there were probably plenty of people who had. The exhilaration of not being one of them was enormous. I don't think I've ever been as excited about a race.
Perhaps the key thing about betting is that it enables an allegiance to be formed in a sport where otherwise it's hard to identify with a side the way you do in team games. I like to see Irish trainers win but the victories don't pack the same visceral charge as those achieved by national teams. Gamble a few bob, on the other hand, and you become the fiercest of partisans even if the money involved is, by the standards of the serious punter, pretty modest.
Like most other pleasures in life, betting is fun once you're not a fanatic about it. It's nice to feel like The Sundance Kid a few days a year. The 2.40 at Wincanton I will, however, leave to more dedicated souls.
Sunday Indo Sport