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James Lawton: Nesbitt is self-styled bard of Cheltenham

Cheltenham comes round quickly, but then so does life, and in both cases some of us rarely get round to analysing quite why we enjoy it so much.

The great horse racing is there, for a finite number of occasions each early spring and so, like climbers responding to the existence of a mountain, we go to it, hopeful of hauling ourselves to a peak of good judgement at the betting window but rarely unconscious of the fact that the chances are we will fall in a heap on the other side,

The betting, anyway, is pretty much beside the point.

You don't go to Cheltenham to get rich, even for a few days. You go to remind yourself that you are still alive.

Maybe Jimmy Nesbitt is in less need of such a jolt than most of us, given the tumultuous course of his acting career, but then even such a committed sports aficionado required a little time to weigh the meaning of the greatest equine sports event of them all as he boarded the train for the West Country yesterday.

This year the man from Coleraine carries a special edge of anticipation as his six-year-old Riverside Theatre goes today in The Arkle. The impressive young chaser, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty, carries the colours of Nesbitt's revered Manchester United but even with such a propriety interest there is always a point at Cheltenham when partisanship yields to something that runs deeper than the imperatives of winning and losing.

“That is maybe it,” says Nesbitt, “that's why Cheltenham is so unique, why it is separate from anything else you might experience in sport. The Irish may come in their thousands, but unlike football it can never be a tribal event.

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“Most of all it is people coming together; there is no separation of class. In the end everyone is united by the majesty of what they are seeing, the courage of the horses and the men who ride them, the beauty of the animals, their incredible strength, and their fragility.

“I suppose having your own horse creates other emotions too. You worry about the welfare of everyone concerned, you hope to win of course but there are other considerations you see with maybe a clearer focus. You certain

ly see the dangers more clearly and the degree of courage that is required in the riding and the work and the knowledge that goes into preparing every horse that goes out there.

“I started going to Cheltenham as a lad with my mates. I loved it then, probably without knowing quite why. Now I know some of the mysteries, the feeling is no less intense. For a little time you are part of something which has no segregation; everybody is in it together, the trainers, the jockeys, the owners, the punters.

“And then there are the horses, the magnificent horses, which we glory in, worry over and wish we could always share their courage.”

If Nesbitt makes a hymn to Cheltenham, it is one which we know will course through so many thousands of veins today and then swell inexorably on the approach of the race of races on Friday, the Gold Cup which pits the sublime Kauto Star against his potentially relentless next-door-neighbour Denman.Cheltenham is many things to many people but more than anything it is liberation.

It is the bunch of Irishman who went directly from the bar to the hotel room where the priest was saying an early morning Mass for the jocks and the hosses and a good week of sport, and one of his congregation slept seamlessly after earlier sliding from the stool on which he had give a word perfect reprise of Michael O'Hare's calling of Dawn Run's miraculous run into the rising ground with Jonjo O'Neill on his back.

It will always be Arkle, striding so untouchably into history.

It is the stupendous promise and intrigue of Kauto Star, a horse that, with his predecessor Best Mate, may not have surpassed the legacy of Arkle, because you cannot surpass the unsurpassable, but has done the next best, evoked it with quite brilliant performance.

It was the late Sir Clement Freud being pummelled to the floor by one large and exuberant spectator clutching a winning ticket and a whole battery of binoculars, and then rising with his jaw set and swinging a very passable left hook and right cross before being told he had wrongly identified the culprit. “Still, I feel better,” he said.

Freud was somewhat separate from proceedings for a little while, but not for long.

Nor will be Jimmy Nesbitt today, except for those dry-mouth moments when Riverside Theatre, named for the hometown auditorium where he first stepped on to the boards as the Artful Dodger, is launched at the fences and then, God willing, is brought to that rising ground which investigates the courage of every horse and the resolve of every rider.

“It's true,” he admitted, “I will be more nervous than ever before but I don't expect to go without too much sleep.

“There are ways of inducing it and one of them is called Guinness.”

So it's good morning, Cheltenham — and would you mind just waiting while we get something to steady our nerves.