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Cheltenham Racecourse prepares for Festival
The sun hits Cheltenham as final preparations get under way

By Frank Keogh at Cheltenham

Cheltenham in springtime. The sun came out of hiding and cast an envious glance over the Cotswolds on the eve of one of sport's great occasions.

As I trod the turf of a racecourse that will make and break thousands of dreams this week, it was hard not to smile and count my blessings.

The setting for horse racing's Cheltenham Festival is idyllic in the picturesque shadow of Cleeve Hill.

It was quiet. The calm before the rush of noise when a crowd of more than 50,000 will roar their approval for the start of the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which begins the four-day meeting at 1330 GMT on Tuesday.

Those numbers hit home. More than 220,000 spectators generating £7m in gate receipts, and a total of over £600m - half a billion to you and me - staked on 27 races.

I have seen every race at this Festival in the flesh since 1995. Getting on for 400 contests. After a while, it almost becomes part of you.

Every detail about all 27 races has been scoured, the hands blackened from poring over racing papers. The nervous excitement of an over-grown child on Christmas Eve. I'm not alone.

When the Racing Post listed details of Cheltenham Festival preview nights in February, there were more than 60 of them in all corners of the UK and Ireland and they filled a page.

From Wrexham to Hexham, Hamilton to Lewes, Naas to Newmarket, punters paid to hear the view of pundits weeks before the action begins.

Throughout the dark days of winter, thoughts turn to those heady days in March, when the world's best hurdlers and steeplechasers compete at the home of jump racing. And racegoers pit their wits in an effort to solve the puzzle of who triumphs.

As I walk in the hoofsteps of equine greats such as Arkle, Istabraq and Best Mate, the test that this unique track poses becomes apparent.

It rises round the bend past the main stand, drops on the far side, and continues to gradually incline and decline all the way round.

To cover the two-mile circuit, it took me 75 minutes, admittedly with the odd chat here and there, whereas the winner of Tuesday's Champion Hurdle will break the four-minute mark.

About half a mile away from the stands, on the far side of the track, with only a few chirping birds for company and the empty stands in the distance, I chance upon a Festival regular.

Raymond Greenslade, 83, born and bred in Cheltenham, has been coming to the meeting for 75 years, so I asked him what made it so special.

"They come from all over the world for this, you know. Once they've experienced it, they all want to come back. It's the atmosphere, the occasion," he tells me, leaning on his trusty bicycle, through a wire mesh fence.

"It's quiet now but on Tuesday afternoon it will be hectic. You will hear that roar from the stand from right over here."

Typically, I forgot my walking shoes and made the trip in a shiny new black leather pair. There was not a hint of juice or mud on them afterwards. A dream debut.

The sprinklers were out in force, trying to ensure the ground does not ride too fast which could potentially lead to more injuries.

And then, as I walk up the punishing climb to the winning line, out of nowhere a soundtrack suddenly plays in my head.

It's Sir Peter O'Sullevan 25 years earlier calling home Dawn Run as she became the only horse to clinch the Cheltenham Gold Cup-Champion Hurdle double.

"The mare's gonna get up," roared the Voice of Racing, who reached 93 earlier in the month.

Who will emulate the racing greats in the Gold Cup on Friday?

Back to Raymond, a former racecourse groundsman who says Imperial Commander is primed to follow up his win last season and that rivals Kauto Star and Denman "are getting on a bit".

Asked for his own favourite memories, he mentions a rain-soaked day when there was no hard flooring in the cheapest course area, now known as the Best Mate Enclosure but locally referred to as the Cabbage Patch.

"They were ankle-deep in mud. Lord Oaksey won on a horse called Taxidermist," he tells me. He stuffed them. His joke, not mine.

And then his eyes brighten as he mentions a horse called Four Ten, a former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.

"It was years and years ago, maybe 30 years. He was trained just behind where I'm standing by Johnny Roberts. I had £5 to win on him, which was a lot of money in those days, and he was 14-1 or 16-1," he said.

"I put it on with a local bookmaker called Ernie Dick, who funnily enough also owned a pub called the Horse and Groom."

Turns out the victory he recalled was 57 years ago. Memories made here last a lifetime.

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see also
Stage set for Cheltenham Festival
14 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Binocular withdrawn from Hurdle
13 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham: Champion Hurdle
13 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Maguire free for Champion Hurdle
03 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Binocular lands Champion Hurdle
16 Mar 10 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing

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