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McCoy gets Cheltenham Festival off to a flier

By Jamie McDowell

Cheltenham Racecourse may nestle in England, in picturesque Gloucestershire, but the atmosphere was distinctly Irish yesterday.

Outside the bars, large groups of lads stomped their feet to the music filtering in to the packed yards and terraces with the odd busker doing the rounds.

There was much to celebrate for the travelling Northern Ireland contingent who let up a furious roar when Tony McCoy romped home on Binocular to win the main race of the day.

The sun-drenched racecourse was alive with activity from early in the day, and at times it proved difficult to get near some betting kiosks.

For those who didn’t want to brave the squeeze beside the course itself — or leave the sanctity of the bars — large projector screens were strategically placed in convenient locations.

Judging by many of the accents, fans had come from far and wide to experience the thrill of Cheltenham.

The social scale ranged from rowdy groups of lads with Cockney accents, bent on having a good time, to Establishment gentlemen, dressed head to toe in countryside regalia and sipping glasses of champagne.

It wasn’t until the horses reached the last few furlongs of each race that the pieces of the jigsaw really came together and the lid lifted on Cheltenham.

As a backdrop to the scene, giant letters spelling out the bookie’s Paddy Power were constructed along a distant hillside, similar to the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

The sign may have been a piece of marketing genius, as it was clearly visible in the background of every photograph taken as the jockeys made the final jump.

The Guinness bar was the main gathering place for those who put socialising ahead of punting.

The only thing that was audible among the cheers, laughter and music was the crunch of plastic beer cups under the feet of the masses as they trod their way back and forth between the bar and the grandstand.

Immediately after the final race ended, a mass exodus began towards the car parks, as the spectators took part in their own race to escape the traffic jams and prepare themselves for another huge day of the roller-coaster ups and downs of this iconic festival.

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