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Monday, 19 November, 2018

Raging reverend's message lost among the merriment of four magical days

Alastair Down delves into the facts and figures of the Cheltenham Festival

Sir Anthony McCoy and Lester Piggott have both ridden Cheltenham winners
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1 It is one of history's ironies that racegoers this week will owe a debt to Reverend Francis Close, the fire-breathing rector of Cheltenham from 1826 to 1856. It was his congregation who burned down the stands of the old racecourse on Cleeve Hill, prompting the move down to Prestbury Park in 1831. Close preached against the perils of indulgence in alcoholic liquors, betting, adultery and theatre-going. He wasn't mad about revelling, fornication or lasciviousness either, which may explain why he was never an annual member at Cheltenham. A Sabbatarian, he campaigned against trains running on Sundays. Given the current amount of engineering work on the Sabbath he has largely got his way.

2 In 1954 Lester Piggott rode his sole festival winner when landing the Birdlip Selling Hurdle on Mull Sack, trained by his father Keith. Piggotts were to Prestbury as daffodils are to spring as Lester's uncle Victor, grandfather Ernie and great uncle Charlie also rode winners at Cheltenham. Three months after his Birdlip triumph, Piggott rode Never Say Die to win a Flat race in Surrey called the Derby.

3 If you thought the Rowley Mile won all prizes for being designed specifically to prevent racegoers seeing anything it is worth recalling that until 1977 the start of the Gold Cup was handily placed in a chute behind the stands and they had jumped one fence before hoving into view. Always a touch dispiriting when the first glimpse of your Gold Cup banker revealed him galloping merrily towards the second minus the all-important pilot.

4 Cheltenham loves its festival statistics and informs us there are 350 chefs on duty daily and 350 catering managers – what they call 'man to man marking'. According to Cheltenham there are 800 accredited members of the press on hand. No figures are available for the discredited ones.

5 Among retired Flat trainers, both Ian Balding and Ben Hanbury rode festival winners. Balding was on National Hunt Chase winner Time in 1963 and amateur rider Hanbury (who did 9st 9lb that day) beat the professionals when taking the Mildmay of Flete (now the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate) on 25-1 chance French March in 1967. Of the current Flat brigade, Roger Charlton won the 1969 Kim Muir at 33-1 on Pride Of Kentucky, trained from his wheelchair by Edward Courage of Spanish Steps and Royal Relief fame. Charlton's memories of the day are somewhat hazy as he was scooped up by a group of Irishmen who had hammered the 33s and plied him with so much whiskey that by the end of the day he had no idea whether he was in Cheltenham or Chernobyl. Presumably the hangover could have come from either.

6 Bobby Renton, grandfather of Cheltenham boss Ian, trained 1950 Grand National winner Freebooter for leading owner Lurline Brotherton, who was later to sell Red Rum for 6,000gns to Ginger McCain on behalf of Noel Le Mare. While Renton, based near Ripon, was famous for his Aintree exploits he was also a dab hand at saddling festival winners – with nine from 1950 to 1968. Among his winning jockeys were Tommy Stack, Josh Gifford and Terry Biddlecombe. Renton farmed the Mildmay of Flete – how that name is missed – with the last of his four winners, Merry Court, being his final festival scorer in 1968.

7 £2,200,000 – the amount of money withdrawn from on-course cash machines at last year's meeting. An average of 65,000 people will attend on each of the four days, in the process eating 45,000 bread rolls and drinking more than 8,000 gallons of tea and coffee – among plenty of other tipples.

8 There are festival veterans, old hands and then there is racecourse photographer Bernard Parkin, who has been going to the meeting for 79 years. Now 87, he confesses to having missed the gig for one year when in the army and 2001 when foot and mouth struck. A Royal Warrant holder as racing photographer first to the Queen Mother and now the Queen, he has covered the meeting professionally since 1970. And he still puts in a full shift covering big distances through the day with a raking stride that would do credit to a 40-year-old. He'd bolt up in the four-miler because there is simply no limit to his stamina. A Cheltenham great with the manners to match.

9 In 1987, with snow falling and an inch already on the ground, the Gold Cup field was recalled from the start and it looked all Lombard Street to a china orange the race would be lost. Many racegoers left but the Cheltenham authorities insisted the snow would pass and the temperature would increase. The Gold Cup was run 81 minutes late at 4.51pm and won by Arthur Stephenson's The Thinker. A very fine call.

10 If you have not booked the time off already or arranged a funeral for your 11th granny then you'd better get moving. The crucial dates for 2018 are March 13-16.

Among retired Flat trainers, both Ian Balding and Ben Hanbury rode festival winners
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