Cheltenham Festival 2009
Date: 10-13 March Coverage: Daily coverage on BBC Radio Five Live from 1300-1600, BBC Radio Gloucestershire, Channel Four and live updates on the BBC Sport website
The Cheltenham Festival is the undoubted highlight of the National Hunt season.
The stars of the jumping world gather at Prestbury Park for 26 races over four days with total prize money of £3.56m
It is a race meeting that attracts punters from across the UK and further afield and captures the hearts of the nation.
We asked some top racing personalities, Gold Cup-winning trainer Paul Nicholls (PN), Irish bookmaker Ellen Martin (EM), BBC racing presenter Clare Balding (CB) and former jockey Mick Fitzgerald (MF) about what makes the Festival so special for them.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FORWARD TO MOST AHEAD OF CHELTENHAM?
PN: The start of the first race, the roar of the crowd on the first day is brilliant. But you could go on and on - the build-up to it, the speculation, everything that goes along with it.
The start of the Festival is always eagerly anticipated
EM: Meeting the loyal punters who I see once a year. Although internet betting sites now dominate and it makes it harder for on-course bookmakers to make money, it is still the same buzz and every race is electric.
CB: Probably sharing a house with all the BBC Radio 5 Live team. It's a bit different, we all share a big farmhouse together, have meals together and it's like being back at school so I look forward to that. It's four days of the best racing that you can have on offer, everybody has to be at the top of their game, the crowds are fantastic and the roar when the very first race starts you kind of know where you are then.
MF: It sounds silly, but it's like being a child before Christmas because you can't wait to run downstairs and see the presents. It's that sort of feeling of anticipation because you know the rush you get once the tapes go up in the first race on the first day. You've almost waited 12 months for that day to come again.
WHAT MAKES CHELTENHAM SO SPECIAL?
PN: It is the Olympics of our sport, it's very popular and just a great sporting occasion. If you have never been before you have to go and see it.
CB: I think it's the setting, it's so beautiful, everyone has made a huge effort to get there as Cheltenham is not exactly the centre of the universe. Once they are there they are in holiday mood, they are prepared to lose a certain amount of money but if they are lucky they end up winning and everyone is celebrating. And the crowd really appreciate the effort the horses put in, so you'll get a massive roar for a horse that's finished second and you very rarely get that at a Flat meeting.
EM: Although the craic is mighty and there is a fantastic atmosphere, the Festival week is a game of tactics for me. I have to be on the ball every day and make sure I do my homework every night and in the morning to be ready, but at the end of it I just want to come away with a week's wages.
MF: It is unique, the feeling you get when you ride a winner at that place, and I've spoken to many people who have had winners there as owners and trainers and you see their eyes just light up when they talk about Cheltenham - it's just a magical place.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BEST MOMENT AT THE FESTIVAL?
PN: It's a bit of a toss up. I've always said that nothing will beat See More Business winning the Gold Cup in 1999 because it was my first Gold Cup winner. But the right answer is the one-two-three in last year's race.
Charlie Swan and Istabraq won three consecutive Champion Hurdles
CB: Denman winning the Gold Cup last year was pretty special and also Istabraq winning his third Champion Hurdle and Best Mate winning his third Gold Cup. They were amazing moments and it's lovely to go to something that is just pure sporting enjoyment, there is no side to it, there's no opposition fans chanting horrible things or anything like that.
EM: In 2000 I went to the Festival as a spectator and just before the Champion Hurdle I went to get coffee and got separated from my friends. When Istabraq came up the line to the finish line and the crowds started cheering, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Even though I didn't have a bet on the race, I just got carried away by the people around me and I knew then that it was something I wanted to be part of.
MF: I think every time I rode a winner it was special, but I don't think I'll ever, ever be able to match the feeling when I came in after riding the winner of the Gold Cup. It's something that will never, ever leave me. It was a childhood dream of mine to win a Gold Cup and suddenly it was a dream realised and it's just an enormous feeling of satisfaction. It really is that warm feeling that totally envelops your body, it's very hard to describe but it's almost like 'Wow - I've done it'.
DO YOU HAVE ANY HABITS OR SUPERSTITIONS?
PN: I've got a blue and red shirt that I always wear when Kauto Star runs, so when the Gold Cup comes round I'll be wearing that.
CB: Not particularly, apart from parking by the exit. I don't mind walking a long way to get into the racecourse as long as when I get back to my car I can get out quickly! So that is definitely a habit I have developed.
EM: I wear my lucky green socks and I never walk over a coin on the ground. I also stay in the same place each year along with some other friends so it becomes a home away from home.
WHAT IS YOUR GOLD CUP 1-2-3?
Paul Nicholls has high hopes for Kauto Star, Neptune Collonges and Denman
CB: I would love to see Denman come back to his best but I think it is quite a difficult thing to come back from the veterinary treatment he had and I'm worried that he hasn't got time. For me the Gold Cup isn't Kauto Star's race. So with that in mind Neptune Collonges is the improving horse. If he has improved as much as it looks like he has, he is the big danger. So that means Neptune first, Kauto second and Denman third.
EM: In the Gold Cup, it could be a 1-2-3 for Paul Nicholls but I don't know in what order. However, Nicholls might not have things all his own way and I think a good each-way bet could be David Pipe's Madison Du Berlais.
WHERE DO YOU LIKE TO CELEBRATE A WINNER?
PN: In the Manor Inn, our local pub near our stables. We always head back there in the evening after the Festival.
EM: I know most people got to the restaurants and bars to celebrate a winner but for me, the best place to celebrate is in the marquees where they have the stalls selling the most beautiful hats and jewellery. A few years ago I had £50 on a 20-1 winner (which doesn't happen to me too often) and I bought a beautiful silver bracelet with the winnings that reminds me of the Festival.
IF YOU COULD BE INVOLVED WITH ANY HORSE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
EM: Kasbah Bliss, who runs in the World Hurdle, is a lovely horse and my favourite.
MF: Master Minded. He's the highest-rated chaser in Europe and a superstar. Anybody who wants to do my job and be involved with racing would love to be involved with a horse of that calibre.
CB: Denman, I just love him. He is big, strong and honest and a brilliant jumper. I just look at him and think, 'I'd love to ride you.'
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST AMUSING MOMENT AT THE FESTIVAL?
EM: Last year, just before the Gold Cup, I was on the Channel Four Racing programme and all of a sudden I got a kiss on the lips from John McCririck live on television. It all happened so fast it was a blur and I was left speechless.
Channel Four racing presenter John McCririck is a regular at Cheltenham
MF: I'll never forget when I rode Remittance Man, which was my first big chance in the Queen Mother back in 1994 and he fell at the third last. I can just remember lying on the ground thinking 'oh dear what have I just done?' because I had just put a horse who was favourite of so many people in racing down. I was coming back in the Land Rover with the ground staff who had just picked me up and was listening to the commentary. I was desperate for Nicky Henderson, who I was riding for, to have the winner because I thought if he had the winner for the race he won't mind so much that I put Remittance on the deck. So, it was an irony really opposed to funny.
PN: In 1998 when See More Business got carried out by Cyborgo in the Gold Cup when he was favourite. I remember I wasn't in the best of humour and my best mate took me back straight after the race - when I look back it always makes me smile but at the time I was not in good humour that day!
CB: Plenty of funny things happen when you end up living with people you wouldn't normally spend that much time with. Think I'd have to say that seeing John Inverdale, Cornelius Lysaght and John Hunt et al first thing in the morning is classed as both funny and strange.