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The field at Cheltenham in 1972

A long long time ago, when David Bowie really was good, I slunk away from school one Thursday morning break, and went down to Bristol Temple Meads station to get the train to Cheltenham to see the Gold Cup.

It is that long ago that all the carriages had compartments with doors - you only see them in movies these days - and sliding in to one, a solitary figure in the corner looked up from behind his copy of the Sporting Life. Our eyes met. A heart pumping, throat drying, knees knocking kind-of-a-moment. A teacher at my school. He uttered six words and the grey skies turned blue, "I won't tell if you won't."  And he went back to the Sporting Life.

Just one of a thousand memories since first going to the festival in 1972.  It has snowed at Cheltenham over that period, most memorably on the day The Thinker won the Gold Cup.  And there have been occasions when incessant rain has attempted to drain the last vestiges of enthusiasm from every racegoer's vault of Cheltenham passion.

But for the most part, my image of Cheltenham is that opening Tuesday - a chill bright day signalling the official end of winter and the onset of spring -  and an overwhelming sense of excitement and anticipation at the drama that is about to unfold.

The best horses, the best jockeys, the best setting, the most enthusiastic and knowledgable of spectators sealed into the valley beneath Cleeve Hill, almost oblivious to the outside world for four days.

From a BBC perspective, terrible news tragedies have occurred over the years during the festival which have made Champion Hurdles and Gold Cups appear very incidental, and often we've been fighting for airtime against a succession of chancellors raising excise duty on booze and fags in their budgets, but our ambition remains to make it four days of racing on the radio that engages even the most ambivalent of listeners, who must surely tingle, just a bit, as John Hunt describes a tight finish between two horses they might never have heard of.

Cheltenham has changed a lot over the years, and it's now bigger and better and more corporate, but it's never lost its soul.  If you're thinking of skipping off school or work next week,  I for one am in no position to condemn.

5 live's Cheltenham coverage begins on Tuesday 12 March, there is also coverage on the BBC Sport website.

Download a preview of Cheltenham with Eleanor Oldroyd, Cornelius Lysaght and Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey Andrew Thornton.

Comments

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by arcalis

    on 8 Mar 2013 08:57

    If you are on the commentaries this year John, please remember that many of us listen to hear the racing, not the interviews with B-list celebrities who don't know one end of a horse from another. Rather hear from PN or NH about their runners in the next.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by bashman63

    on 7 Mar 2013 19:38

    First memories , running home from school to catch Monksfield out battling Sea Pigeon ,roll on 36 years and still the same enthusiasm for witnessing the clash of giants/reputations and the hope of landing a good priced winner of a handicap !
    Cheltenham sums up all that is good , lets forget the corporate gripes and embrace the start of spring and the drama that is about to unfold and be chiselled in racing history

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by David Shield

    on 6 Mar 2013 19:56

    Shame we have lost Clare Balding but I'm sure the Five Live coverage of Cheltenham will be as excellent as ever next week, always a highlight.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Jackstumps

    on 6 Mar 2013 17:07

    You always get the impression that just under the surface this is just great big drinking club.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Matt

    on 6 Mar 2013 09:19

    John Inverdale with another big yawn of a story which gets better and better every year. We get it John you went to Cheltenham years ago when you were a kid.

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