TO CHELTENHAM… that magical equinal wonderland where you think nothing if you wake up with more money stuffed down one trouser pocket than you swore you had the night before; where you can drink whiskey nips for breakfast and no one will raise an eyebrow; where all hell broke loose in that great year of ’79 after Jonjo O’Neill rode Alverton home in the big one…
No, I can’t do it. Sorry. I’ll not be adding my own piece of pre-festival spiel here. I admit it — I am a Cheltenham novice. Along with many others who will make their festival debut this year, I feel a mixture of trepidation and downright excitement. I feel what’s needed here is (don’t laugh, old timers) a coherent plan.
That’s right. A good, old-fashioned plan of action for the day. A kind of “here’s what you could have seen and done” before the bets came in and you got taken up in the intoxicating whirlwind of Cheltenham fever with your own story to add to the mythical folklore of the Festival.
Thursday is the day you can lift a glass to St Patrick and, come rich or poor — Big Buck’s or no — it’s the perfect day to kick-start the 2013 St Patrick’s long weekend of parties.
Cheltenham… where literally anything can happen. With this ‘essentials’ guide, especially designed with the festival virgin in mind, you’ve the best chance of making it to the other St Patrick’s Day celebrations you’ve got planned all around the country over the March 17 weekend.
Thursday’s big races
Ryanair Chase: Not a dash to the boarding queue as the name suggests but a recently awarded Grade 1 status race which supplements the World Hurdle and is a fascinating race in its own right. Fierce competition is expected among horses who don’t quite match the pace of a Champion Chaser or the endurance of a Gold Cup entrant. 2.40pm. 2m 5f.
The World Hurdle: St Patrick’s Thursday’s feature race, and one of the most hotly anticipated of the whole festival. The World Hurdle, known as the Stayers’ Hurdle until 2005, is one of the youngest races at the festival, only being introduced with current race conditions in 1972. And even though Big Buck’s, the greatest staying hurdler in history, is injured this year, a stellar line-up of first-class horses will still be on display. A more open, competitive challenge is in order, with Oscar Whiskey, Reve De Sivola and Monksland the leading contenders. 3.20pm. 3m.
St Patrick’s Derby: This amateur race, won by Olympic silver medallist and Three-Day Event rider Tina Cook who took the spoils riding Pascha Bere home to victory in 2012, attracts a range of familiar faces and names into the saddle and this year is no different. The line-up, compiled of riders based in Ireland, England and France includes Sky Sports News presenter Alex Hammond and Phillip Hemmings, son of the well-known racehorse owner Trevor Hemmings.
Irish representatives are drawn from the worlds of business, sport and law. Sally Ann Grassick, originally from Ireland, now lives in France and is a presenter on racing channel Equidia; James Fenton, a member of An Garda Siochana, hails from a large family of keen racing enthusiasts; Brian Bunyan, a banker from Kildare and active fundraiser for Seeing is Believing and Racing Welfare charities; Grainne Loughnan, a solicitor from Co. Meath; and Graham Ross from Co. Kildare, Betfair’s Regional Manager in Ireland.
The 2013 St Patrick’s Derby is sponsored once again by Cancer Research UK and many of the entrants hold the charity close to their hearts having had first-hand experience of dealing with cancer. Andrew Crossley, who will compete in this very special race, returned to work for Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls in Ditcheat in January last year after undergoing surgery and radiotherapy — with support from the charity — following a diagnosis of cancer of the salivary gland at 27. 5.15pm. 1m 5f.
The best craic to be had between races on St Patrick’s Thursday
Live bands and Irish dancing will form the crux of the St Patrick’s celebrations around the track. Head to the Best Mate enclosure during racing and the Centaur afterwards to catch the main acts. Saddle The Pony — comprising Tom Leary, Dave Lovick and Triv — will peddle the infectious fiddle, guitar, bodhrán and vocals as resident band at the Guinness Village. Master Butchers, another popular festival fixture, play the Tented Village and are sure to bring their usual good craic and popular songs. Mickey Finn Leprechaun Magician plays the Walkabout. Fiddler, who do exactly what they say on the tin, play the Entrance Balcony. Meanwhile Rollercoaster return to the Best Mate and Centaur enclosures; listen out for Galway Girl, Black Velvet Band, Irish Rover and a host of other Irish classics before the LHG Disco keeps the party spinning at the Best Mate enclosure.