by Jordan McCarthy
a ruby red stout
The majestic gates of Cheltenham racecourse rise in front of me. Big, golden letters arc above the welcoming pillars, bordered by a blue sky, dotted with cotton clouds. The welcome sign glistens in the March sunlight. Getting here is a rite of passage; I’ve reached the biggest festival, the greatest show.
The natural amphitheatre that is Prestbury Park is magnificent. The modernised stands alongside the track gape out over the theatre of grassy plains and rolling hills. The course is flanked by the wonderful Cleeve Hill, which stands over the racecourse as the most beautiful backdrop; the shades of green and hues of gold along the hills make me feel like I’m on an otherworldly adventure.
It doesn’t feel like Cheltenham is just a hop across the water. Nope. This is like another planet. It is like a magical land, kind of like the stuff you hear about in fairy tales. Except that this is real. Cheltenham does exist. I can now vouch for that, even if I never thought I’d get here.
But, I always knew it existed. Sure, you’d hear about it on the news on RTE; the late, great Colm Murray giving his daily updates on how the Irish were doing and what our best chances of a winner were for the following day. Names like Istabraq and Beef Or Salmon were familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure why.
I think I officially caught ‘Festival fever’ when I was a 13 year old pupil in secondary school. Some of the lads were talking about horses that week.
‘‘Can we watch the Champion Hurdle, sir?’’ one of them asked, on a spring afternoon.
I thought he’d be told ‘no chance’, but the small antique television flickered on. The teacher reached legendary status. He also started my yet-to-be-ignited passion for horse racing. Brave Inca was one of the horses running that day. I heard one of the older lads in the corridor boasting about a bet he had on him. The guy was already a very keen punter by that stage. Hardy Eustace won the race, I’m sure. Harchibald was well up there. Rooster Booster and Macs Joy were some of the other runners; they were names that caught your attention, though I didn’t know why.
I remember having two euro on Sir Rembrandt in the Gold Cup, when he was racing against Kicking King. Take The Stand was in the line-up. Beef Or Salmon ran, as did Celestial Gold. These sounded like extravagant names. Kicking King was a character on our alphabet wall in the primary school days. Rembrandt I’d heard of in history class. I discovered that, if Sir Rembrandt won the Gold Cup, I’d get around 24 quid back from the bookies. Anyway, Kicking King was the favourite and sure you couldn’t get rich backing favourites, you had to try and be smart. Alas, Sir Rembrandt didn’t win. Kicking King did.
Nevertheless, the spectrum of colours of the jockeys’ silks, the glorious shades of bay and brown and grey galloping across the turf and the lavish odds of who and what was going to win had this lad hooked. I kind of forgot about it then for a while. Except I didn’t really forget about it at all; the famous Grand National at Aintree came along just a few weeks after Cheltenham.
‘Let’s watch it, let’s have a bet. Ring my uncle to do my bet will you, mam?’
Hedgehunter won it that year. Great name. I envisioned this horse out hunting hedges, and nothing could stop him. Nothing did stop him. Ruby Walsh was sporting the green and yellow quartered colours in the saddle. Another great name. Willie Mullins the trainer. Big name, too. I remember they had the horse on one of those morning television shows the following week. I thought it was mega. And no, I didn’t back him. I think my sister did, all the same. I picked Take The Stand, the name registered with me for some reason.
Being at Cheltenham is surreal. Commentary of iconic races rings out over the PA system. Punters are filling in to the stands; some are sipping from plastic cups of ruby red stout, while others are pouring their eyes over shiny rectangular brochures. Racing professionals trod across the spring turf, sussing the state of the ground. Cleeve Hill glimmers in the sunshine. Its aura drags me ever closer to the rail.
Well, boy, you never thought you’d get here, did you?
I remove the race programme from my jacket pocket and flick-open the glossy pamphlet. The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is the first race. Altior will be running. Buveur D’air too. There’s Min as well. Bellshill. Tombstone. Supasundae. Petit Mouchoir. Promising names, rainbow-like colours, and a series of form figures remind me of why I love it all so much. Sure, isn’t all a puzzle? And a colourful one at that.
The feeling of excitement reaches down into the pit of my stomach. My eyes fill, my smile broadens. Seeing the colour, the names, the glitz and glam of the race card, I hark back to the schoolyard days. We’d be showing off our collections of soccer stickers. The more swaps you had, the higher your status in the social circle. I found one buried deep in the backpack I’m using for my trip to Cheltenham. It was a Manchester United player – Nicky Butt.
The shiny stickers were worth two normal stickers. Say, if you had a shiny Coventry City crest or a sparkling West Ham United badge, then the lads would have to give you two stickers of soccer players to get you to trade. There were half-stickers as well.
Opening a new packet of Premier League or World Cup stickers was a sensation that brought meaning to my life as a nine year old. I think there were around six stickers in a pack. Cost around 50 pence. The smell of new, the smell of printed paper and plastic and vinyl satisfied my nostrils. On Friday, I might get four or five packets; that was euphoria. I’d carefully pull open the packet at the top, making sure that my tearing didn’t rip the sticker. You’d shuffle through; ‘‘have, have, have…yes, don’t have! Ohh, a shiny Arsenal one, wait ‘til I tell the lads!’’
The relief on my parents’ or grandparents’ faces when they realised that there were new stickers in the packet. It was worth the few quid to keep me occupied for a few minutes.
The following week in school, we’d show each other our collections of swaps. One lad, Dion, had around 700 stickers, clasped together in a chunky, blue elastic band. ‘‘Need two more stickers to fill the book. Derby County’s Mart Poom and Leicester City’s Muzzy Izzet. Anyone have ‘em?’’ he’d shout.
For me, as a kid, life was packets of soccer stickers. Seeing the faces, the colours, improving your collection; it was like you were achieving something. Filling a book was the dream for years. Apparently, they had these big trade gatherings in England where people from all over would go to swap and complete their sticker books. I never did manage to fill one of the books, mind. Never even got close. Dion almost did. Dion was almost king.
‘‘Not long to go ‘til the roar, lad,’ beams a small elderly man to my right. The curled-up emphasis on ‘r’ gives him an accent which is truly wonderful; a West Country accent.
‘‘This is my seventy-fourth year at the Festival. Been comin’ ‘ere since I was a nipper,’’ he adds.
‘‘You’ve been coming to the races here for seventy four years?’’ I gush, forgetting about my mental walk through the nostalgia lane of Premiership stickers. My jaw drops. He has been going to the races at Cheltenham almost three times longer than I’ve been on this planet.
‘‘Sure ‘ave. Seen all the greats; Arkle, Dawn Run, Istabraq, Best Mate, Kauto Star. The lot. Course, ‘ave seen some mad results, too. Will never forget Norton’s Coin. Hundred to one so he was,’’ the old man reminisces.
‘‘It’s my first time at Cheltenham. Feels like a dream, ’’ I say.
‘‘You Irish bloody love it ‘ere. Course it adds to the atmosphere. Great hearin’ the Irish voices every year. You’ll be back again for sure!’’
‘‘I hope so. What keeps you coming back?’’ I ask.
His eyebrows rise in an M, as if I’ve just asked him to run a lap of the track
‘‘Well, never really thought about it, lad. I suppose…seeing the horses in all their beauty. It’s good for the soul. The gambling and drinking followed, but the horses were first. Although my wife might say that I go racing just to avoid her! Still, I’ll always bring her something nice back,’’ he said.
‘‘Sometimes, yeah. Other times it might be a stick of rock or one of those women’s magazines.’’
‘‘What is it for you, lad?’’
‘‘What’s your story with horse racing?’’
‘‘Oh! Am…I just love the colour of it all really. I love opening a race card or a newspaper and seeing the jockeys’ silks. The horses’ names, too. Racing gives me the same buzz that the Premier League sticker books gave me as a kid, d’you know what I mean?’’
‘‘Aye, I do lad. Used to buy some of those football stickers for my grandson, years ago. Kept him quiet while I watched the racing on the box. He doesn’t like the horses though. Not sure why. Anyway, nice meeting you, lad. I’m off to get my bet on. Altior is the one today. Have a few pound on it, son. The boys at the yard tell me that he is a monster,’’ he says, as he turns and walks towards the jungle that is the betting ring.
The roar didn’t disappoint. The crowd’s cheers reverberated across the hills. It was incredible. The race was incredible, too. Altior won. I had ten pounds on him. I collected my winnings from the bookmaker down near the finish line. Bliss!
‘‘Well done, bud. Don’t get too fond of winning now, d’you hear me?’’ he jokingly warned.
He’s probably right. I won’t. But, I was in front for now. Twenty quid in profit, to be exact. I’ve backed a winner at Cheltenham and I’m here to take it all in. I think of the amount of Premier League stickers that nine year old me could buy. Nine year old me is salivating at the thought.
I take out my smartphone and finger the words ‘soccer’ and ‘stickers’ into the search engine. My mouth opens. These are still a thing. Wow! I scroll down through the rest of the search results and I notice that some full-albums are for sale on the second-hand buy and sell web pages. The top result is a 1999 Premier League album; Beckham, Bergkamp and Owen are on the front cover. It’s full with every sticker; all the players, logos, shiny ones, the team ‘half’ photos, the lot. €300 o.n.o. it reads. The seller is a KingDion69. Dion? Could it be? I haven’t seen or heard from him in years. Looks like he found Mart Poom and Muzzy Izzet, after all. A couple of more winners this week, and I could be paying him a visit.
About the author
McCarthy is a writer, podcaster and producer from Cork, Ireland. He has
written sports features for The Echo and The
Irish Examiner. Read his blog, 'Tipping Away', at thejordanmccarthyblog.wordpress.com or check
out his podcast, 'Leeside Lives'.