Alastair Down never misses the Cheltenham Festival. He’s been waylaid once or twice in his racing lifetime. Stayed in a pub and missed a race or two in the past. But missing the Festival is unthinkable for one of the finest sports journalists of our time, and a man whose presence is still much missed by viewers of Channel 4 Racing.
Alastair will be there again this year, at Cheltenham, doing what he does best. Writing pearls of poetry for the Racing Post. For one publication or another he has been writing beautifully for decades. Some of his best articles have been published in a book entitled: ‘The Best of Alastair Down’. It is a fantastic read and I urge you to buy a copy.
Here are some excerpts from a chapter about the Cheltenham Festival.
“Cheltenham and the madcappery of its Festival has become one of my oldest friends. I have seen it grow up alongside me, heard its laughter, felt its tears, revelled in its affections and, as you do with those you love, forgiven plenty of shortcomings and the days it let you down.
“In middle age you look back in search of what have been life’s constant refrains – faithful friends, the power of words, an early start with tobacco that argues an early end, a propensity to punt, the pop of corks, fascination with wars, the growing of children – and, running through it all, a profound preoccupation with a particular place at a very specific time. Cheltenham in March.
“I was nineteen when I first went to the Festival and have missed not a day since. The three days that became four have tapped out a rhythm through my life and when the climatic crash of the drums is stilled after the last race on Gold Cup day they are replaced by the steady click of the metronome marking the start of the countdown to the following year.
“Part of Cheltenham’s magic lies in its flirtation with the savage. At Festival pace no other course asks questions of horse and rider in such a searching way – the rise and fall of the terrain, the fences and that long climb to the gods at the end strip everything to the bone. Nowhere else brings courage more to the fore.
“Of course the punter can take the most savage pummelling, yet joy still somehow wins through.
“And when the time comes I suspect my ashes will find their final resting place at the top of the hill – a place of solitude and skylarks in summer but where the denouement begins to boil to brutal in winter.
“At the top of the hill all the dreams are still alive, the triumphs and tragedies of the long swoop down and hard haul up the hill to victory yet to unfold before the rapt ranks in the stands.
“On a quiet day, a few souls who share my blood, and some of those friends who truly understood why that blood was ever quickened in that place in the month when the hares go mad, will perform a simple ceremony. And that will be me done and literally dusted – forever lodged somewhere I believe I belong.”