The Inside Rail

Each year at Cheltenham, my friend George Baker and I hunch over a kitchen counter or a dog-shared couch or in next-door rooms and write our daily reports. It's not our best writing, usually wedged between too few hours of sleep and mad dashes out the door to beat the traffic. Many times, we don't get to read each other's ramblings until the week is over. Not this year. Time is on our side. 

Read George's daily blog.  

We'll let George write this today...

There's a road. That leads to Cheltenham. It snakes through Cotswold stone walls. Through the high hills behind Winchcombe. And drops down beside Sudeley Castle into Winchcombe itself. From where it is no more than a Champion Hurdle distance to the top of Cleeve Hill. Which is where the radio picks up the reception from "Festival Radio". And from where the first glimpse of the field of dreams can be seen....

On a Tuesday morning in March, there is no greater sight to behold. The descent off Cleeve Hill is the gateway to four days of the finest sport that this great sport bestows. Helicopters flicking over the hedgerows to land beside the two mile start. Cars filled with pilgrims who have chosen this place as their sporting Mecca. The vast tented village away to the left. The distant crackle of the sound system as a pundit or protagonist tells their tale. Flags fluttering. Collars turned up against the bite of wind. Irish music. Ticket touts. "I will buy or sell." Lucky heather thrust like a spiky dagger from a wily claw. Racing Posts fluttering under clamped arms. The pendulum swing of ancient binoculars that are clearly old and dear friends. Many a tale seen through their murky lens...
 
Through the creaking turnstiles, and onto the hallowed ground. Racecard secured. A wave and a nod to mates and acquaintances. A good luck shout to a jockey or trainer friend. Tuesday morning, and no dreams yet shattered. No best laid plans torn asunder, and thrown to the mercy of the wind. Yet....
 
The massive big screen to the right. The "Owners and Trainers" tent to the left. Nervous tables already secured. A wave from the other side of the glass. A mouthed "good luck" back. Fingers crossed and raised to the sky. Dreams alive. For some, this will be the day of days. A day that will live with them forever, burned deep into the memory. And revisited time and again. Especially at moments when racing's croupier deals a tougher hand. For others, this day will bring the gnawing agony of deep disappointment as a dream becomes pained reality. The supreme joy of victory on the biggest stages, and the dark gloom when the cards fall wrong. The fine margins. The brutality of sport. The beauty of sport...
 
The Turf Club away to the left. A drop zone that will be well visited in hours and days to come. But on now to The Guinness Village. A rite of passage. This is where we meet. Old friends. Once a year conversations. The old faces. The ruddy, the louche, the reprobates and the rogues. The cunning, the wise, the wicked and the downright naughty. The craic. The opinions flying hither and thither. Cold Guinness splashed on cold hands. I can taste it right now. The band strikes up. The shoulders dropping. The fun. Let The Games Commence...
 
A couple of years ago, a pretty girl asked for a "selfie". Marginally surprised, but not a little flattered, I smiled, and raised my glass to her camera. "Thank you so much Mr Nicholls. Have a great week." Hmmmmm......
 
Last year, a rather less attractive group of lads asked me the same question. Fearing the worst, I pursed my lips and smiled as best I could. "Thanks George, top man." Bloody Hell. A small slither of credibility restored. Fame. Of sorts. At last....
 
Four wonderful, magical, exhausting and utterly brilliant days at the greatest sporting amphitheatre of all. With the possible exception of Loftus Road when the old place rocks ?! High octane drama played out in front of packed stands. Life changing yankees planned, rejigged and filed in the nearest bin as the results fall the way of others. Placepots. Jackpots. Bankers. Hopeful stabs at massive long shots. More of that "craic" stuff. Great tales. Sadder ones too. Laughter and fun.....
 
For those of us who have made the annual pilgrimage for longer than we care to take on board, there is a huge void this year. We will watch wistfully from afar. Wishing it was not thus...
 
But we will be back. In a short year's time, we will crest Cleeve Hill. And dive headlong into the mad maelstrom that is Cheltenham during Festival week. Incomparable. Superb. It will be tinged with sadness as we all know some who have moved on during these desperate times. They would have been with us, travelling upsides, on the bridle, saving a bit for the finishing straight, dancing every dance, loving it all. They will be sorely missed. We will raise a glass or three to their memory.....
 
These are the days....
 
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