Magazine article The Spectator

Leave It to the Irish

Magazine article The Spectator

Leave It to the Irish

Article excerpt

NEXT Tuesday is 17 March. It is also Budget Day, St Patrick's Day and the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, the annual three-day race meeting that is the championship and yearly orgasm of National Hunt Racing.

These three events tend to coincide, and I can hardly believe it is coincidence. For a start, the event is marinaded in Irishness: great Irish horses, great Irish punters - an annual invasion of Irishmen on the spree. Myths of great horses of the past, still more potent myths of dark horses to come: animals that can run across the surface of a bog without splashing, and leap over mountains while they are doing it. Tales of priests with carrier-bags full of fivers after a mixture of prayer and astute form-reading; stories of the sweet-looking nun who has never tipped a loser. The race meeting has everything going for it: the best horses, the best races and deep roots in the Irish affinity for horses, betting, bonhomie and booze.

Why, then, do I loathe the Cheltenham Festival? Not the racing and the horses, which are wonderful. Perhaps it is covering the event as a journalist, when you have the surreal experience of being practically the only sober person among 40,000.

Perhaps it is something to do with the Irish - but that is not true. It is something to do with the English. The English think good craic is just about getting drunk. But there is a spiritual dimension to the notion of the craic, of which Jameson's is only a contributing factor. Proper attendance at the Cheltenham Festival involves a year's preparation, a year of soaking yourself in the fascinations of racing. And also a year's hoarding of pennies and punts, to spend in a fantastic three-day binge of utter lordliness.

Money is precious every day of the year save these three. And then the true puntcarrying punter wades in with the courage of a lion, with Gadarene recklessness. …

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