Cheltenham

To my racing friends:

As you know I wander the world going to interesting racetracks and races. In recent years Goodwood has become a fixture on my calendar because I have always regarded it as the prettiest track I’ve ever been to. Next come Deauville, Baden Baden, Keeneland (where I’m going this weekend to Breeders’ Cup!), Saratoga, Chantilly, Del Mar, Happy Valley,and well, the list could go on.

In recent years, however, whenever I have mentioned to knowledgeable racing folks how much I like Goodwood, I’ve had the name “Cheltenham” whispered in my ear with a tone of authority that said that THIS was the ultimate beauty. So this year when I knew I’d be going through England on my way to Amsterdam (to visit not a racetrack, but reputedly the most spectacular city hotel in Europe…the new Waldorf Astoria*) I set aside a day at the end of my trip to go out to Cheltenham, about a 2-1/2 hour train ride out from London.

I should have recognized that something special was up when the boarding notice went up on the board at Victoria Station and a virtual stampede ensued toward Track No. 9 for the train to Cheltenham Spa. On board, out came the Racing Posts and the cheers and beers as we journeyed westward.

Cheltenham Spa is located in the Cotswolds, more specifically in Gloucestershire. It’s a city of about 100,000, a lovely town with a tidy downtown and classic old English churches and stately homes, and its pride and joy is the Cheltenham racetrack about a mile outside of town. It is a gleaming white palace that overlooks an endless expanse of emerald green lawns and white fences in the foreground, and in the distance a towering hill replete with farms and steeples and country houses. The closest thing I can compare it to is an Impressionist painting where your eye is drawn to an immense array of color and beautiful muted figures. The fact that I was present in late October with the accompanying autumn colors only added to the mystique.

This was “Showcase Saturday”, the end of a two-day racing festival in late October that kicks off Cheltenham’s fall and winter racing calendar, a preview to its vaunted Gold Cup in November. Inside, a crowd of approximately 40,000 was squashed into a facility probably designed for 20,000. The English are prodigious daytime drinkers—a pint in every hand– and the tweedy well-dressed mob of
(mostly young) revelers was definitely up for a party. The races at Cheltenham fall into the categories of steeplechase and hurdles, an unfamiliar world for me which makes my limited handicapping skills even more tenuous. Nonetheless, I persevered and eventually got the hang of it a little bit…well, actually, I just decided to go with the winning jockey of the first race all day and hoped that he would have a hot day, which he did, winning three our of the six races, putting an extra $100 or so in my pocket. The races were thrilling. The crowd was enthusiastic (and well lubricated). The atmosphere was electric. It was a ball.

The gaiety, however, belied the fact that “jump racing”, as it is known there, is in a state of serious decline, mostly owing to the paucity of horses that are trained as jumpers and that have the stamina for their 2-1/2 mile to 3-1/2 mile marathons up and down hills and around sweeping turns and into a grueling stretch run that seems to go on forever as the field surges toward the finish. Adding to the sport’s distress is that the leading trainers and jockeys in England much prefer to concentrate their careers on flat racing, where there is significantly greater prestige and much larger purses.

So, my parting word on this subject is: do yourself an immense favor and someday go to Cheltenham. It is truly the most beautiful racecourse in the world..at least of all the ones I’ve seen.

*Footnote No. 1: As for the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam, it is a stunner, maybe the most gorgeous property in any European city. They will NEVER recover their investment in furnishings and decor, no matter how much they charge.

**Footnote No. 2: In the How-Dumb-Can-You-Be Dept., I booked tickets in London to the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” at the Royal Opera House and to the Bob Dylan concert at the Royal Albert Hall…ON THE SAME NIGHT! The solution? Saw the first act of “Romeo and Juliet”, then raced out and hopped a taxi to the last hour of the Dylan concert. Bob Dylan was in some respects a caricature of himself with his trademark mumble and his distinctive intonations, but on the other hand he wasn’t just some has-been star of yesteryear pouring out his oldies-but-goodies, but instead has adopted an endearing new style that included several “soft” classics such as “Autumn Leaves”. Bob’s 74 now, and the audience in the packed-to-the-gills 5-tier Royal Albert roared their approval and probably made him feel like he was 25 again.