Festival Fever

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It can’t have escaped your notice that the cameras have been firmly fixed on Evergreen and This England’s hometown of Cheltenham this week, with the annual Gold Cup Festival. Although our office is some distance from the racecourse at Prestbury Park, I’m convinced that we can still hear the famous Cheltenham roar, which heralds the first race at the start of the festival, and the thunder of horses’ hooves. If we trained our binoculars on the horizon we might also be able to see hats thrown in the air in celebration, or torn betting slips cascading like confetti in despair.

The festival always coincides with St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) and as so many of the racegoers come from the Shamrock Isle we can guarantee that, whether they back a winner or not, Irish eyes are always smiling in Cheltenham long after the final race has ended.

The four-day event brings a tremendous buzz to the town and there’s great “craic” as the Irish would say. The atmosphere is marvellous, and for many regulars it is a time to renew old friendships as they share their passion for the sport. Wending their way along the roads to the racecourse are what I like to call the "pilgrims of the turf", many of them clad in tweed, with copies of the “Racing Post” folded and tucked in their jacket pockets. For local businesses – and even enterprising townsfolk who hone their hospitality skills especially for this week - the festival is a golden opportunity and hotels, cafes, pubs and wine bars are packed to the gunwales with eager punters. Streets are lined with brightly chalked blackboards and banners advertising racing breakfasts to sustain the hardy racegoers with their equivalent of a nosebag before they head out on the gallops. By lunchtime, the town-centre pubs and bookmakers are filled with office workers who’ve heard a good tip, placed their bets and keenly await the outcome - their eyes glued to television screens. As the racing commentary echoes along the normally quiet streets, drinks are sipped, fists are clenched and the cheering steadily gathers pace.

Of course it’s not just Irish accents you’ll hear throughout Gold Cup week, there is a symphony of voices from right across Britain– it is like a vocal compass, and for me that is one of the Festival’s attractions. Yes, the main focus of the action is undoubtedly the magnificent horses and the fearless jockeys, but some (not all, I hasten to add!) of the spectators are equally fascinating to watch. It is as much a grandstand for people-watching as racing; a parade ground for all walks of life. Then there is the spectacle of seeing the expressions of contrasting emotions as each race unfolds. The tension across the final furlongs as these towering thoroughbreds, in full thunderous gallop, strain every sinew in pursuit of victory is quite unbearable - and then, the euphoria or despondency takes hold.

While all the ballyhoo of the festival has been unfolding, we have been busy starting work on the forthcoming summer issue of Evergreen, which is published on 7th June (click here for subscriptions). Horses are among the animals to feature in a fantastic article about the work of the countryside photographer and writer Roger Redfern. Although he died in 2011, Roger left a superb archive of images celebrating Britain’s rural magnificence - its landscapes and animals. He also had a particular gift for getting animals to trust him. It is a delightful article that provides a fascinating portrait of the man and his four-legged subjects.

As I’m nearing the home straight, there’s just time to say, if you’ve backed a horse in this afternoon’s big race then I hope that the luck of the Irish will be with you!

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