Alastair Down sets the scene for four frenzied days of ferocity, joy and magic
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.
O come ye, o come ye, to Cheltenham.
We are back where we feel we ever belong in this month of the mad March hare. Joyful is guaranteed, triumphant lies in the lap of gods and our own flimsy judgement.
But we are all – every man Jack and woman Jill – united by the simple childish excitement that over the next four days we will share in events that will include one single shining certainty. And that is that the festival – our thumping and heartfelt festival – will provide the blessing of timbers shivered and roofs raised by the primal force of events at this meeting that will, unsparingly, leave no corner of the sporting soul unexplored.
Luckily, by the skin of scraped teeth, we go ahead. Worldwide coughs and sneezes are spreading diseases – we can hopefully content ourselves with no much greater worry this week than the degree to which the Cheltenham going eases.
So why is it that we relish the meeting so much and batten on to it like a mongoose clamping the neck of a cobra? What is it about these days alone that transports us to places we scarce dare to believe exist?
Much of it is to do with the place. For the faithful returning year on sacred year that first glimpse of the complex courses laid out in the lee of Cleeve Hill sets the pulse storming. In some way it is home turf – be you from Wexford, Westmoreland, Whitstable or Wick.
It is a thing of beauty, but we also know that this is the last course where savagery lies. Rightly, we have made it more benign down the years but that old gnarled soul of a course lies there, unremitting in examination and unforgiving in its forensic unravelling of horse and rider.
We know, from bootstrap to bone marrow, that to triumph here requires the answering of questions that our risk-averse world all too rarely dares to ask. Hiding places there are not, just one of the reasons that the clamour of acclaim for winners returning to unsaddle is so uniformly admiring and celebratory.
You and I may not have been there but somewhere in our inner hearts we understand that out there on the course they have passed through ice and fire to haul their carcasses up that unremitting hill.
It is hard to avoid cliches about the magic of this week but ponder, please, on that roar that rises for the Supreme. What is that about? Partly that the long wait is over, a degree of excitement going from simmer to boil. But more than anything it is a glad-to-be-alive, rock-and-roll-is-here-today moment. We have ached for the hour and it is upon us – a rural sport rampant for four, frenzied days of happiness uproariously unleashed.
On a personal note, today will be my 45th year at the meeting without missing a day. As an emotional magnet the meeting has more power than the poles. It draws you in to start with and back for ever more. There is a simple joy and pleasure to be found in its irresistibility.
Inevitably, at the age of 64, the whole glorious shebang is peopled by friends and horses past – the warriors of decades done. But one of the four days' myriad beauties lies in the fact the next generations are already in happy thrall. We may not be able to hand on money as inheritance but the magic passes on to those who utterly understand that some of their parents' obsessions are indeed worth more than a candle.
Whatever your gig at the meeting may be, just remember to wallow in the wonder of it. It does not matter whether you are Best Mate Enclosure, Centaur, Guinness Village or lofty box, we are all gloriously as one until Friday fades.
And around the islands those who have buried too many grannies and cannot get the day off will be riveted to the box to watch the panoply of the perfect unfold – to profit or financial perdition.
Around 50 years ago I recall watching Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral in spellbinding black and white. It was the first time I saw my parents weep – shared times and shared triumphs over the incontrovertible evil.
Among the stirring music was the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which opens with the words, 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord'. Well this week has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with faith. And our eyes will indeed see the glory.
The verses of that exceptional battle cry include the lines, 'He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored'. Well, there will doubtless be a little wrath these coming days but it will, as always, be vintage.
And another verse reads, 'Be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet'. Well, for all of us who tread our way there this week our feet will indeed be jubilant and our souls will undoubtedly answer in our many ways.
For 45 years this has been the pilgrimage that faith in the marvellous compels me to undertake. May it ever be thus with you all. Welcome friends, fans and fellow travellers to the four days that matter and elevate us all.
Pick up Tuesday's Racing Post for the complete Cheltenham Festival package, with betting advice from Paul Kealy and Pricewise, exclusive columns from Willie Mullins and Richard Johnson, and previews and analysis for every race. Plus, read more brilliant Cheltenham Festival insight from Alastair Down everyday this week in the Racing Post
Subscribe to Members' Club Ultimate and watch unlimited video replays of every UK and Irish race. For more information visit racingpost.com/members-club