Cheltenham. What does that word conjure in one's mind?
The greatest show on turf. The National Hunt 'Olympics'. Mecca. One hears all the cliches about Cheltenham, but to be honest, as I approach my 18th Festival as a broadcaster and journalist, I have to admit that it's all true.
The Festival showcases the best horses, jockeys and trainers in jumps racing from both sides of the Irish Sea performing at their best for 4 magical days. The amphitheatre that is the Cheltenham racecourse with its unique undulations and uphill finish is the perfect setting for drama, unpredictability and fiercely contested races. To make it even more patriotic and accessible, in recent years, Irish horses have dominated to give the Festival an 'emerald edge'.
It all starts next Tuesday at 1.30, and from that point onward, it's relentless.
So what advice can I give a novice punter, green as the grass at Cheltenham, who is attending for the first time next week?
- Get a good position in the packed stands before 1.30 on Tuesday. The roar when the tapes go up for the Supreme Novices Hurdle will send a shiver down your spine.
- If you would like to give yourself the best possible chance of making money, have your form studied in the morning or the night before; cramming won't cut it.
- Be mindful about the going; there's been a deluge of rain at the track lately and more is forecast, so we have a situation where the norm is reversed, as most races this winter have been staged on unusually quick going.
- Watch a race from the bottom of the hill at some stage, just to see how tough the gradient is in the closing stages.
- Throw your newspaper and hat in the air if you back a winner near the betting ring.
- Be selective about where you eat at the track; some culinary offerings are better than others.
- Check out the tented village; there are some excellent paintings and quality clothing (including hats!) on sale.
- Watch the horses in the parade ring and observe the winners enclosure after the big races.
- Mind your money; it can get quite crowded, especially on Gold Cup day.
- Shop around for the best prices; on track and on your smartphone.
- Make restaurant reservations in the town.
- Enjoy yourself.
- Blow your betting budget on the first day; it's a marathon not a sprint. With 28 races, you should be thinking not of how many winners you can back, but how much profit you will make. Boring perhaps, but sensible!
- Mix alcohol and gambling; it doesn't work; leave the partying until each evening.
- Despite our good recent record, back Irish trained horses simply out of patriotism; the horse doesn't know where he or she is from.
- Don't go near any rails bookie offering 1/5 the odds a place in any race; it should be 1/4.
- Back dodgy jumpers; it's called National Hunt racing.