Martin Horwood MP
It’s always painful leaving Cheltenham to go back to Parliament but in Gold Cup week you really do feel you’re travelling in completely the wrong direction. MPs can always ask the party whips for time off from Parliament for urgent constituency engagements. I’ve always wondered if they would spot it if I arranged four in a row around the middle of March.
As I write, of course, I don’t know how the Festival has gone. Has the era of Denman and Kauto Star passed into history? Did Imperial Commander make it a double in the Gold Cup? Has Ruby Walsh retained his crown as top jockey for the fourth year running, despite breaking his leg not that long ago (are these people insane?). A few things are certain: the Irish will be there, millions will be won in prize money, far more millions lost by punters or bookies and the deafening Cheltenham roar will be heard as thousands cheer and shout and pray in unison. There will be magnificent victories and heartbreaking defeats over that famous hill. Not for nothing is Cheltenham described as the ‘Olympics of jump racing’.
The combination of Festival and Gold Cup in the same month and place seems to have been settled in 1911, making this the centenary festival. But I have seen a Guide to Cheltenham published in the 1830s which already advertised the delights of ‘a Gold Cup’ at the climax of three days of races so the local origins of both cup and festival are clearly much earlier than 1911. When that Guide was published, a titanic political battle raged between Cheltenham’s first MP, the lively raceloving liberal Craven Berkeley, and the arch-Tory and so-called ‘Pope of Cheltenham’, Dean Francis Close, who would have banned the whole thing.
These days, politics rarely intrudes. 11 tragic deaths of horses in 2006 alarmed animal rights activists but the racecourse management took this very seriously and made major changes. The state of the Irish economy damaged last year’s Festival and it’s no healthier this year. But I’ve noticed the usual Festival advertising around Paddington station spreading out across London this year in an aggressive marketing response.
Then there are the knotty issues of the racing levy and the Tote. Both set up for the benefit of racing, one redistributes some of betting’s massive profits back to racing itself while the other was originally established (by Winston Churchill no less!) as a safe state-sponsored alternative to dodgy bookmakers. But the levy hasn’t kept up with an industry now increasingly web-based while the tote has become an obvious target for privatisation. I keep in close touch with our racecourse’s owners on what we think the best outcomes would be for Cheltenham.
And there is one last issue. Parliamentary constituency boundaries place the racecourse not in my constituency but in neighbouring Tewkesbury. A newly passed act of parliament means another boundary review before 2015 so I might suggest ours takes a little detour just off the Evesham Road…
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