Sermon on the Mounts — Frank McNally on a biblical week in Cheltenham

The End is Nigh Handicap Hurdle

On the daily walk to Cheltenham racecourse last week, I passed a group offering “free Bible classes”.

The Good Book did not seem to be in much demand, however, surrounded as it was by books of a different sort, the makers of which were all over town like a bad rash, offering free gateway-drug bets for which they were never short of takers.

In a metaphor they would have appreciated, although I didn’t share it with them, the Bible promoters seemed to be casting their seed on stony ground.

It struck me that they might have done better with a more pragmatic “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. My idea involved a mocked-up bookies’ board for The End is Nigh Handicap Hurdle, offering odds on which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would turn up first.

It’s interesting that the Book of Revelation, like many racing punters, placed more importance on the jockeys than their mounts. As to the horse that would be first up in any Apocalypse, of course, my money would be on whichever one was trained by Willie Mullins.

***

It may have been for such blasphemous thoughts that at the end of the week, I was subjected to a biblical chastisement in Birmingham Airport.

No sooner had the festival’s last race finished Friday, and my last copy been dispatched, than I had to run for Newbridge Travel’s 5.45pm bus – leaving so early, I presumed, because the traffic around the racecourse would be horrendous.

Instead, miraculously, we were out of Cheltenham in minutes and zipped up the M5 with no delays to arrive a full three hours before the 10.30pm flight. There would time for a leisurely dinner, I thought, accompanied by a pint or two and the reading of a short novel.

But no: these days, airports and airlines always find new ways to humiliate you. And sure enough, it soon emerged that thanks to maintenance work, the queue for security would take up most of the time we had available.

It was spread over two floors, with lifts in between to increase the chaos. Tempers quickly frayed. But when somebody with a more imminent flight asked what was going in, he was assured in smug tones not to worry, that this was a “managed process” and no flights would be missed.

The process, as became slowly and painfully obvious, was that described in the Gospel of St Matthew 20:16: the last would be first and the first last.

So it was, that as each take-off time before ours arrived, the laggards were plucked from the back of the queue and promoted, while we the virtuous were left standing for two hours until our cases too became urgent. Verily, I say unto you, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

***

Speaking of revelation, I was amazed anew – returning to Cheltenham after years away – at how casual security around the British royal family seems to be there, at least in the parade ring.

Not everyone has access to that, it’s true. But, well, people like me do, courtesy of the press pass, with minimal formality. And in the mills that surrounded the big races, I again found myself rubbing shoulders with royalty, or nearly, without meaning to.

Looking around me for someone who might be good for a quote one afternoon, for example, I noticed a familiar-looking woman chatting beside me and realised it was Queen Camilla.

Her male companion or minder didn’t look like hired muscle. But no doubt if any actual rubbing of royal shoulders occurred, the security detail would have become quickly apparent.

***

With the exceptions of some jockeys and the grooms, perhaps, journalists are the only people in the Cheltenham parade ring these day who aren’t rich or famous, or both.

It used to be different, at least some of the time. Jumps racing was once a sport where a small-time breeder or a farmer who kept a few horses might get lucky occasionally and end up in the winners’ enclosure.

But as Steve Dennis wrote in a fine piece for the Irish Field earlier this month, “the Danoli days are gone”.

He was mourning an era when those of modest means might hold on to a good horse long enough to win big, unlike now when it is always wiser to sell the potential (and with it the sport’s soul) to people with deeper pockets.

Dennis’s eulogy proved poignantly prescient when Danoli’s former owner, Dan O’Neill, died aged 93 last Wednesday.

He had bought his great horse for £7,000, placed him with a little-known local trainer, and lived to win many races, none more famously than at Cheltenham in 1994.

Danoli and his owners were ghosts at the banquet this year. Or if not at the banquet, at the Thursday night post-race sales, some of which I lingered to watch.

Lots included a four-year-old bought for €28,000 but since the winner of a “point-to-point” in Limerick, and now resold for £410,000 (about €480,000).

The horse was called Deafening Silence, but the auctioneer made enough noise for both of them.

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