Me and the Raider go to the Cheltenham Festival every year, though not, as one might expect, by going to the horsey spa town in Gloucestershire. No, we go in the opposite direction – east, to the coast, to a seaside town, to spend a day or more entirely in pubs, on beaches and in bookies, just as God intended (if God was a functioning alcoholic, as strong evidence suggests She is).
Why? To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember. Only that one St Patrick’s Day, maybe a decade ago, we hopped on a train in the early Spring sunshine with a Racing Post, some tinnies and a pork pie. We found a pub by the sea with the racing on, backed some winners and had such a beautiful time it would have been absurd not to do it again. Other than Beaujolais Nouveau Day it’s the only entry in my calendar.
It’s no coincidence that St Patrick’s Day falls during the Cheltenham Festival – it’s a week dominated by Irish stables. St Paddy’s is a holy day that reminds us of the absurdity of religion: An Englishman venerated in Ireland for driving out the snakes that were never there, whose special day is celebrated from New York to Nigeria by way of special offers on Guinness.
Having in recent years visited Deal, Ramsgate, Herne Bay and Littlehampton, this time we tried Whitstable in Kent, to win money, spend money, giggle, make friends and lose memories. Though it’s an annual sojourn, I can remember very little about the previous trips, except that that they all start with the black stuff. This year we were joined by Half-life, who hurdled the barrier at Brixton like a thoroughbred, in a kilt.
‘Happy St Patrick’s Day!’ we cheered, clunking our plastic glasses at the Old Neptune, a spectacular wooden boozer right on the beach, with Guinness £3 a pint. The Raider had already paid for his day’s bets with a 5/1 winner in the first race of the Festival on Tuesday, I’d had a winner in the second and Half-life lost a bag of weed in the third on a 40/1 shot. It seemed too much to ask that the Neppy would have the racing on, so beautifully stationed for sunsets as it is. But no, the guvnor was all over it. We could have our cake, bet on it and eat it beside the sea.
Outside, at the benches on the stoney beach, a young family tried to appease a toddler with snacks.
‘Fuck me, they’re feeding him quinoa crisps,’ said Half-life. ‘I thought that was just for cunts in Islington.’
‘No, it’s for cunts everywhere. Except Bolivia, where they grow it and can’t afford it anymore,’ I told him.
‘Anyway, it’s pronounced kee-nwah, according to the Internet,’ said the Raider.
‘Bollocks, is it,’ said Half-life. ‘That Internet says we landed on the moon and Victoria Pendleton is riding at Cheltenham tomorrow.’
Despite the sheer magnificence of the location, a local tip saw us head to The Ship Centurion in the High Street for pints of Ghost Ship and a back room full of affable punters, spunking their hard-earned at attractive odds. They’re such a nice bunch, casual racing folk. There was a lovely feeling of fraternity among people who were in the pub at 1.30 on a Thursday afternoon and were going to be there the rest of the day; betting, drinking, eating, betting, drinking, eating. We added smoking in too after the Raider bagged another winner and I placed each way. Half-life grumbled that he’d lost his 100/1 punt, like there was some kind of conspiracy against horses given no hope of success.
We shuffled through various narrow passageways with names, if memory serves, like Squeeze Gut Alley and Lard Bastard Alley, until we reached the beach again and could duck under a groyne to smoke a joint. Our senses restored to their full potential, we returned to the Neppy for the World Hurdle. Me and the Raider agreed this was a time to be on the favourite, Thistlecrack, as did the landlord. Half-life contended it was time to be on a rank outsider, because he liked the name, Knockara Beau. The big man was inconsolable when the inevitable happened so we were forced to buy him a drink out of our winnings.
When it came to the next race, the 4.10, Half-life vowed to change his ways. Instead of a 100/1 outsider, he went for a 20/1 outsider, Empire of Dirt, because it reminded him of a song about heroin. That’s science-betting, that is. His horse was hampered at the third, causing him to threaten the TV with extreme violence, but my horse fell, which cheered him up a bit.
‘Come on Empire,’ he bellowed as he reached the middle of the field, at the water jump. Then, almost unnoticed Empire of Dirt crept up the outside for the final three fences and, roared on by a disturbingly animated Half-life, he inched his way to the front and stayed on well to win Half-life £200 and a rare chance to be magnanimous.
‘Fuck all you fuckers!’ He shouted to his new, and old, friends.
Exhausted and content we skinned up in celebration on the beach. Half-life then disturbed the wondrous sea peace, leaping up and shouting: ‘Jazzcakes! Jazzcakes!’
A tall blond figure in the distance looked round but kept on moving away.
‘Jazzcakes! Jazzcakes! JAZZCAKES!’
The poor man being shouted at finally saw Half-life and walked tentatively towards us.
‘Half-life? I thought you were dead.’
‘Yeah, well, I’m better now.’
‘I contributed to your funeral fund.’
‘Aw, thanks, mate. And I only got a ton from you tight fuckers. Still, bygones and that. Come meet the gang and buy me a drink. Lads, meet Jazzcakes.’
Jazzcakes, known to everyone else as Rob, met Half-life when he was unfairly placed on remand. A police officer had helped himself to Rob’s hash brownie during a routine visit and charged him with drugging the law.
‘The nicest guy I ever met inside,’ claimed Half-life of a friend whose case was dismissed and was now married with kids and working with the disabled in his hometown. Jazzcakes joined us for the last two races and a tour of some of Whitstable’s micropubs: The Black Dog, Handsome Sam and the Tankerton Arms. All were brilliant, though the details are now sketchy, having merged into one messy, lovely debacle, leaving me unable to remember what happened where, or how we awoke at Bromley South some hours later.
‘Where’s Half-life?’ I enquired.
‘The last I saw of him, he was heading towards the sea, stripping off, Reggie Perrin-style,’ replied the Raider.