Where the tweeds meet the tattoos

Jason Cowley goes to the Cheltenham races and finds our class system just holding steady

There are several Cheltenham festivals. One thinks, for a start, of the annual literary festival during which the autumnal Regency streets of one of England's loveliest towns are gently overrun by writers lured to the Cotswolds by the prospect of addressing informed, genteel audiences about their work - and perhaps selling some books, into the bargain. There are other festivals, too, of flowers and films, but there is only one Festival, as it, flaunting its upper-case "f", is universally known in the town itself - the National Hunt Festival. During this three-day event, the elegant streets are boisterously overrun by bullet-headed drunks lured west by the prospect of an orgy of gambling and boozing. And this year, the first Festival ever to be sold out months in advance, was no exception.

John Major's vision of Britain as a "classless society at ease with itself" never came to pass. To prove this, you need only spend a few days at Prestbury Park, home of the Festival. All human life is there, at the only national sporting event at which the county set and the urban mob, the lovers of country sports in their tweeds and the shadowy denizens of inner-city bookies in their jeans, mix in rowdy alliance.

Except it never seems to work out quite like that.

For just as the rich, in this country, like to keep the poor comfortably out of sight on their sink estates and in their slovenly schools, so they like to do the same at the Festival, where the great unwashed with their cheap tickets and beery vernacular are kept out of reach, in their separate pens, at the extreme ends of the course.

The dress codes alone at Cheltenham serve as an index of social revelation. You can always tell which enclosure people have access to by their clothes. At the top end, in the club enclosure, the county set bray and mingle, in their greens and browns, their racing trilbys and tweedy country casuals.

The Courage Best enclosure, at the bottom end, is home to the hatless mob, with their shaven heads, tattoos and multiple piercings - and that's just the women. As ever, the commuter crowds pack the swollen middle of the Tattersalls enclosure - the businessmen on a day out in their tight suits and even tighter shirts.

But there are always glorious moments of interaction between these groups. In one instance, John Francombe, the former champion jockey and now Channel 4 pundit, appeared as if from nowhere at the head of a fast-food queue in which I had been standing for more than 20 minutes. "Any tips, Franks?" the lads behind me shouted. Franks turned, smiled and then placed his order for "fish and chips twice" - all the while charming the country colonel in front of whom he had just pushed.

In another instance, I saw a toothy Sloane stop her Range Rover to buy tickets from a near-toothless tout. I saw the tout again, this time inside Prestbury Park, standing alongside me at a urinal. He introduced himself, and offered me his hand. "Hi, I'm Alan." Reluctantly I took his hand, and we shook. His complexion was puce, he was crop-haired, wild-eyed, and he was swaying. You could smell the alcohol on his breath - and it wasn't yet noon.

Outside, in the stands and on the turf, in the Guinness village and by the burger stalls, there were many thousands like Alan - staggering and staggeringly drunk. "Oh, this is all so vulgar," I heard a woman say, in haughty tones, as a huge football-style chant - a rush of pure jubilation - greeted the victory of the odds-on favourite Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday afternoon. It was his third and successive triumph in that great race, and the fourth victory at Cheltenham in as many years.

It was certainly a marvellous performance, and the highlight of the entire Festival, a performance that delighted the massed Irish visitors for whom Istabraq is a national icon, as popular in their country as Guinness. One giant banner proclaimed: "Istabraq for President." Perhaps he will be called in to rescue the stalled peace process. He certainly couldn't do worse than the present incumbents.

And yet, I left Prestbury Park at the end of the week, feeling deeply ambivalent about the Festival, and National Hunt racing in general. As I wandered the pubs and hotel bars of the city centre, making my way from the magisterial Queen's Hotel to more seedy haunts, where the turf babes, the strippers and table-dancers bussed in from the metropolis flourished, an image replayed itself in my mind as if in slow-motion, of a tired grey horse, Mr Lamb, gamely approaching the final fence of the first race only to fall awkwardly, breaking his neck as he hit the hard ground.

As the crowds cheered home the winner, the stricken Mr Lamb was swiftly swept up into a white motorised horse box, and driven from the course, as though nothing had happened. He was dead. Jenny Pitman, the self-styled "Queen of racing", is fond of saying that if she were ever reincarnated, she would like to return as a racehorse. Well, not as Mr Lamb, she wouldn't.

Despite these inevitable casualties, Cheltenham remains indisputably one of the great sporting events, a carnival of colour and courage and carnage. Yet, as in so much of our contemporary society, the Festival has become a victim of excess - a once great event getting "bigger and hotter" with each new year, but one bloated by its own success. (You could hardly move in the Tattersalls for the crush.)

As Alan said, when I ran into him again one night as he emerged from a thicket of strippers in the basement of a nightclub, "This is all getting fucking too much."

Exhausted, broke and emotional after another long day, I had to agree. Until next year, that is.

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