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Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

It may be heavy but the going is always great for the festival faithful

Alastair Down sets the scene for an incomparable four days

Ready for action: the deserted stands will be packed with the festival faithful when the Supreme Novices' field jumps off at 1.30 on Tuesday
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And so the long and winding roads converge once more, the irresistible gravitational pull of planet Cheltenham weaving that old black magic as the isles assemble for the fiesta that is the festival.

From Macroom across to Mildenhall, Melrose down to Mevagissey those who love these four days will have made their way in with hearts full of cherished hopes and minds chock full with many a cunning plan.

But if it is all about the reassuringly familiar this time, something will be very different. It was 36 years ago in 1982 the festival last opened with the going officially heavy. So for virtually every racegoer and punter across the land aged under 50 this will be a baptism not of fire but water.

Veterans of Ffos Las or Clonmel know all about bottomless ground and racegoers usually pack a pair of flippers for both venues. But at the festival we have been spoiled in recent years and got used to a comfortable diet of good to soft.

It has ridden heavy at Cheltenham already this season and it was all muck and bullets on New Year's Day. But there is all the difference in the world between everyday heavy and festival heavy.

As John Francome, recalling the pre-drainage days at Cheltenham, said last week: "People talk about horses walking up the hill. Well, I remember being on good horses who could barely walk down the hill and thinking they would never manage to get home at all."

Back then the spectacle was not helped by the fact jockeys sometimes went plain mad with the whip – one year a placed horse in the Triumph got 45 smacks from the top of the hill.

Happily, that is ancient history. The problem is that this is the festival and for all the fact that the wise old heads in the weighing room will go steady there will be hotheads who will almost certainly go that half yard quicker than they should. Many a race will be lost in the first four furlongs as the week unravels.

This could be the hour of the stoutly bred types with some heft to them. This will be no place for a Flat pedigree. Without doubt, there will be a couple of races when they totter up to the line and there will be victories for horses whose jockeys have sat a mile back and refused to get involved until cutting through them from the home turn. Expect earth-moving changes from the last.

Douvan: constantly shifting targets
It would not be the festival without 11th hour dramas and Altior's lameness fits that bill while there have been fewer amendments to the US constitution than we have had when it comes to Douvan's chosen target.

But bad ground will not spoil great sport. It justs makes it a different test.

We have Ruby Walsh back on the stage he has made his own like no other jockey in history – lord of all he surveys but with that insanely forensic racing brain whirring way like some super computer absorbing every iota of info and adapting his tactics to the 1,000th degree.

Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson field teams awesome to behold and they could run riot with a couple of major home yards spluttering in and out of form rather than purring on all cylinders.

But jump racing still needs the romance of the smaller fry having their say at this mightiest of events. Who would begrudge an Amy Murphy or Jedd O'Keeffe their zenith moment  toppling the mighty and shaking the towers of the great, or Brian Ellison taking the Gold Cup back home to the north?

And all of us love the old faces among the runners who come back year on year, which is an achievement in itself. It is not just about brilliance but sheer bloody-minded doggedness. Cause Of Causes has won three different races at the festival and Tiger Roll, who you couldn't knock down with a mallet, has the distinction of winning the Triumph and the four-mile National Hunt Chase.

Tigerr Roll: impossible to knock down with a mallet
They are loved both sides of the water because they represent and illustrate the qualities and sheer courage that draw us here. Compel us to be here.

And while the week has a cast of famous trainers and powerfully rich owners it is not really about them. It is about us the fans, the faithful for who being anywhere else in March is simply heresy. It's about the ordinary men and women across the islands who can not afford to be here or have run out of grannies to bury who will not miss a second's action on TV.

This is the people's week which we celebrate as one. There is a happy unity in shared moments of ecstasy. Such events are rare in the wider world yet a joyous commonplace at the festival.

It is a thing of joy that defies all cynicism and remains our imperishable treasure. Few things are beyond price. Our next four days are just that.

Read exclusive previews from 6pm daily on


The wise old heads in the weighing room will go steady but there will be hotheads who will almost certainly go that half yard quicker than they should

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