WILLIAM COBBETT had no knowledge of 'corporate hospitality', that new phe- nomenon at all our grand sporting events in which acres of flouncy marquees are given over to brandified businessmen berks and their sad, dead-eyed dolls and over- millinered molls with no understanding of or affection for the event in question, except to brag that they're there. Yet fully 160 years ago our luminous scribbling jockey twigged perfectly the picture. `Chel- tenham on race day', he wrote, 'is the resort of the lame and lazy, the gourman- dising and the guzzling, the bilious and the nervous. . . •' W've been at it again this week. And for all the guzzling and posing — and horren- dous traffic jams — a romantic resplend- ence still shines through at Cheltenham's springtime festival. The gathering of the clan. Two distinct clans in fact, for Chelt wouldn't be Chelt without its serious annual invasion from Ireland. There seemed more than over this week and I thought fondly of my father — first- generation exile circuitously landed up in Gloucestershire — jauntly doffing his cap to every visiting dog-collar from over the water when he took us as kids on Gold Cup day. Apart from the traffic, and the vastness of the crowds crammed into those tented cities with waitress service, you narrow the eye and nothing much has changed from
those jingly-jangly, breathless boyhood days with Dad. The paddock grass still has the gleam and wink of emeralds, and on it the horses prance in anticipation, or pose as if for a Munnings portrait, all burnished flanks, cool and sleek and serenely aware: swish of tail and sheen of silks. Then off they go — and ten minutes later they return, heroic and knackered and steam- ing, nostrils pumping like cartoon trum- pets.
The Irish, a few of them anyway, pack out the morning Masses at St Gregory's down in the town — and light candles for guidance from the Sacred Heart: well, good Lord Jasus, can y'see The Iliad having the legs of Beech Road in the Champion; and what about separatin' Man o' Magic and Phoenix Gold for the Cup itself on Thursday then?
Cheltenham and the Catholic Church have been saddled up a long time now. A lively colony of Irish settled in the burgeoning spa town after being thrown out of Paris during the Revolution. When Captain Berkeley founded the horserace meeting below the blissful ridge of Cleeve early last century the Irish, being naturals with nags, looked after the stabling and, in time, invited over their relatives to join in the fun. Many stayed. Indeed 100 years ago Cheltenham parish church had to built itself a new cemetery, for, as the old refrain had it:
The churchyard's so small and the Irish so many They ought to be pickled, sent back to Kilkenny.
One Gold Cup morning a few years back, I was waiting in St Gregory's for an uncle who needed to go to confession after Mass. A state of grace is important for winner-picking. He was kneeling, waiting his turn, with a few other like-minded reverts. The amiable Benedictine parish priest, of Irish background himself, was getting quickly throught the queue of penitents. In goes a ferrety, furtive little stable-lad type. 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,' he begins in a quite audible mutter. Suddenly, from the priest's side of the confessional, a low wail comes, an exasperated snort — then ripping sounds and a confetti of torn betting-slips tossed through the curtain in fury. It had been plain to hear what words had preceded this storm — `Forgive me, Father, I've nobbled the favourite for the big one this after- noon.'