14 MARCH 1998, Page 63


Leave it to the Irish

Simon Barnes

NEXT Tuesday is 17 March. It is also Budget Day, St Patrick's Day and the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, the annual three-day race meeting that is the championship and yearly orgasm of National Hunt Racing. These three events tend to coincide, and I can hardly believe it is coincidence. For a start, the event is marinaded in Irishness: great Irish horses, great Irish punters — an annual invasion of Irishmen on the spree. Myths of great horses of the past, still more potent myths of dark horses to come: ani- mals that can run across the surface of a bog without splashing, and leap over moun- tains while they are doing it. Tales of priests with carrier-bags full of fivers after a mixture of prayer and astute form-reading; stories of the sweet-looking nun who has never tipped a loser. The race meeting has everything going for it: the best horses, the best races and deep roots in the Irish affini- ty for horses, betting, bonhomie and booze. Why, then, do I loathe the Cheltenham Festival? Not the racing and the horses, which are wonderful. Perhaps it is covering the event as a journalist, when you have the surreal experience of being practically the only sober person among 40,000. Perhaps it is something to do with the Irish — but that is not true. It is something to do with the English. The English think good craic is just about getting drunk. But there is a spiritual dimension to the notion of the craic, of which Jameson's is only a contributing factor. Proper attendance at the Cheltenham Festival involves a year's prepa- ration, a year of soaking yourself in the fasci- nations of racing. And also a year's hoarding of pennies and punts, to spend in a fantastic three-day binge of utter lordliness.

Money is precious every day of the year save these three. And then the true punt- carrying punter wades in with the courage of a lion, with Gadarene recklessness. Now note also that the event falls in the middle of Lent; St Patrick's Day, being a feast-day, is a day's holiday from Lent. By extension, the three-day festival becomes a gorgeous break from the austerities of Lent, the aus- terities of life.

Mid- and pre-Lenten festivals of carousal are part of Catholic tradition, often involv- ing some presiding figure such as the Lord of Misrule. Cheltenham is a modern-day equivalent, and Budget Day adds a certain poignancy to all this. It is the Chancellor of Misrule that presides giddily over the three- day binge. While the rest of the world tight- ens its belt and wonders about cutting down on life's pleasures, those caught up with the Chancellor of Misrule spend 100 times more than usual.

Englishmen (again the word is accurate) think mere drunkenness and profligacy is enough to share in all this. But the race trains taking English punters back to Lon- don, having sifted out the Irish invaders, rat- tle with bad vibes. Like Christmas, it turned out that the great event was all in the antici- pation.

Englishmen go to Dublin to get drunk, as the recent excitements of Newcastle Foot- ball Club tell us. The male bonding session ended with one player in hospital after bead-butting the pavement, conclusion of a brief exchange of views with another. The Cheltenham Festival is filled with English- men trying to be Irishmen and failing. They master the drinking; they fail the spiritual examination of the craic.

Cheltenham celebrates the deep-rooted English envy of the Irish, and the English failure to comprehend what it is they envy. So I have three tips for Cheltenham: one, watch it on telly; two, remember that canned draught Guinness is technology's greatest achievement; and three, See More Business in the Gold Cup — best National Hunt horse this column has patted this year.