Cheltenham Gold Cup
PUBLISHED: 11:53 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013
With the world famous Cheltenham Gold Cup only days away, Mike Charity recalls with some nostalgia the March meetings he covered for newspapers and television from the 1960s to the 80s. It was a time when the Cabbage Patch was like the Wild West, ...
Until I came to work in Cheltenham, horse racing was of no interest to me whatsoever, a situation probably brought on through the early experience of my father's attempts to beat the bookies with inside information 'straight from the horses mouth', courtesy of the Racing Handicap Book.
His mind was full of horse facts and figures, he knew if the nags answered to the whip, or the whispered word, their preference for hard or soft going, if they liked apple or carrot treats. He could tell you what the trainer had for dinner, what the jockey ate for breakfast and if the owner dressed to the right or the left. Sadly, his horse racing nous combined with the equine oracle of betting, resulted in more losers than winners in the Charity household.
As the outdated racing magazines piled up in the spare room, so they were bundled up and for some reason passed on to my country dwelling grandfather. He lived only four miles from Hereford city centre but in those days it could have been darkest Africa in terms of modernity. Making a call of nature to grandfather's garden-sited 'room of relief' was to experience his personal attempt at recycling. For there, skewered on a large hook, handy sized sheets of the once revered Handicap Book waited to face an ignoble final journey.
It was ITN's News At Ten programme in the sixties that introduced me to the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The BBC held the franchise for the renowned event, but a clause in the contract allowed ITN a one-minute news film about the Gold Cup race. Having recently moved to the town to offer a news service to the media from the area, I was given the opportunity by ITN to film that minute's worth of equine motion.
Perched in the stand with camera and tripod, I was to record leading runners taking the last fence, grab a couple of shots of cheering punters, followed by the winning mount racing past the post. That was it. Then on to the train station from where my 60-second news parcel would speed its way to Reginald Bosanquet's newsroom.
The following year's Gold Cup found me again filming for ITN. On leaving the car park a racegoer asked me for a lift into town. During the ride he enquired if I gambled. I replied I had no real interest in horse racing, but he insisted in naming a nag: "Jock's Strap" or somesuch in the following day's 3.30.
"It's already on its way to the winning post," he claimed. As we turned into the High Street he mentioned the Plough Hotel (now the Regent Arcade). It was on my way, so I offered to take him to the door. As we drew up he turned and said, "I reckon that tip is worth a couple of quid."
"Pardon?" I replied. He repeated the sentence: "The tip ... it's worth a couple of quid."
"No problem," I replied. "The taxi's a fiver."
He collected his bag and silently climbed from the car. Once outside he shouted: "My God, you're a cocky beggar - I reckon you'll go a long way," and stormed off.
I never followed his tip. Perhaps I should have, for he had some sort of insight - two months later I fetched up in Borneo!
I could never be a proper racing man, it would be too painful losing the money. For all that, I began to look forward to the March meeting. I liked the wild, uninhibited attitude of the Irish. They have a philosophy that causes them to laugh, win or lose.
For the Irish, it's the Being There, Enjoying The Moment, Having a Great Time that's important. On the Emerald Isle they call it The Craic. If you are lucky to have experienced The Craic but lost a pony on a nag - so what? At least you were there. If you collect a ton with a winner, then it's a bonus for having being there for The Craic.
During 'Irish Week' the town became a hotch-potch of fashion house, medieval pageant and displays of Bruegel-like table manners. A festival of fun and games that our brought our Gaelic neighbours over by the boatload. If you knew where to go of a night, there were pubs with hidden back rooms, populated by silent poker players seated under a plume of smoke, tables piled high with 20 notes amid jars of the black stuff.
With the tension taut as a bow string, one either joined the school or made a quick exit; loitering was not recommended. The restaurants were full of sparkling, laughing ladies and elegantly suited gents. Hotel lounges were peopled with the cultured and the crummy. In quiet corners, ladies of the night were casting their eyes around for business, the manager watching their every exaggerated sensual move.
The Queen's Hotel was a giant magnet. A ceilidh band provided much of the attraction with its beat calling the faithful into a foyer of wall-to-wall Guinness. As the night peaked in the hotel, the music, the grog and the Irish lilt produced an atmosphere heavy as harvested peat. In those days the walls of the lounge bar were adorned with a mixture of medieval weapons comprising of claymore, shield, axe and lance. Wisely, in fact very wisely, the management removed these instruments of war before the Festival, leaving the faded wallpaper still showing the shapes of weaponry.
On the first of those wild nights I was often booked by Montpellier's Beehive Inn for the annual visit of Nigel Dimmer, of Martin and Co. jewellers, bearing the actual Cheltenham Gold Cup. The pub became a mini Klondyke, as drink-fuelled customers battled to gulp from the golden challis while I struggled to grab a picture of each recipient. I always walked to the inn and staggered back. To refuse a drink was impossible and if you covered the glass they just poured it through your fingers!
Each Gold Cup event brought more assignments. The Irish Press, a now defunct title then based in Dublin, booked me to team up with their scribe, John McIntee. Each day we sent over to Dublin six photos accompanied by a small story with an Irish angle for their diary page. Together we wandered among the spectators listening out for the right accents. Catholic priests were a good bet, with always an anecdote or two sprinkled with the odd expletive. No-one ever refused to be pictured - in fact when they knew we represented an Irish paper they were all over us. Colleens with Irish smiling eyes, eyes made even merrier by flutes of bubbly, posed provocatively for the camera in such ways as to require more than a couple of Hail Marys when next at Mass.
John, well-versed in Irish politics, knew many government ministers on first name terms as well as a stable-load of racing personalities. His contacts and natural charm made light of the daily workload. Through it all, come rain, shine or snow, the Queen Mother was always there. It was her favourite meeting and she was the crowd's favourite Royal.
One day a cheeky shopkeeper rushed out of his Cheltenham store as the Queen Mother's car slowed at a junction and handed her a box of chocolates. Grocer Delaney's impulsive act became an annual affair, so much so that when he moved to work in John Fogarty's Prestbury village shop, he took the Queen Mother with him. Each meeting she made the short detour to collect her sweeties. The tradition eventually had to stop due to the volume of folk crowding the small village High Street.
We were never short of angles or stories at Prestbury Park. The Rolls Royce in the car park boasting a number plate, GEE.WIN. Eager Irish girls with bunches of lucky heather plucking the sleeves of race fans. Clement Freud giving you more than just a minute. The impish smile of Terry Wogan. Freddie Starr, so civil, shocking everyone with his charm. The famous tipster Prince Monalulu, bedecked in traditional African finery waving his mojo and shouting his slogan, "I Gotta Horse". All life was there, the good, the great, the artful, all joining forces to create news items and next year's anecdotes.
Three sheets to the wind in his Stratford hotel bar, an Irish punter bets his mates that he can drive a sit-on lawnmower from the Bard's home town to Prestbury Park - and be there in time for the first day's racing. As midday Tuesday arrives at the agreed meeting place there's no sign of him. Four of us jumped in a vehicle and followed his known route back towards Stratford, where we discovered him a couple of miles from the racecourse astride his lawnmower, out of petrol in a Gotherington lay-by. We helped him out with a top-up of fuel and sent him merrily on his way - which unfortunately turned out to be into the long arm of the law, who nabbed him for driving an unlicensed motor vehicle on the highway. He lost his bet.
Another Gold Cup meeting was made memorable by two Dubliners who decided for a change to drive over to England and meet up with their pals at the course. Needless to say they never arrived. Nor were they there for Day Two. They did manage to arrive on Gold Cup Day, after a detour of several hundred miles throughout Devon and Cornwall.
How come? Well, when they left the ferry and made for the motorway, the couple spotted arrows followed by the large initials H R. They interpreted the letters and arrows as meaning 'Horse Races'. Some several hours later the pair, optimistically following what turned out to be 'Holiday Route' signs, arrived in Falmouth!
It could only happen to the Irish. In fact, I feel it could only have happened then, in the past, when 'Irish Week' was a simple occasion - three days of town centre and racecourse mayhem and mirth.
I preferred the old days, when small was, if not beautiful, at least pleasantly interesting. Three days of race week was a comfortable experience, a break for the norm. Make it five days then even the Paddies might wilt because, to mis-quote Sir Harold Wilson, "A week in punting is a long time."