Of all the passionate noises in sport, perhaps the greatest is the roar before the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
“That is as much about kinship as about the horses,” one racing executive once described it to me. “It’s a recognition that the various clans have survived another year and have returned to the great games.”
That administrator will not be administering at this year’s Festival, however. For the first time in 32 years, the games will have to go ahead without Edward Gillespie as the course’s Managing Director. Thus comes to an end one of the greatest confrontations in racing.
Dear Edward soon came to understand the human peril at the Festival. At the 1988 gathering he took issue with a hot-dog merchant, who grabbed our man’s left index finger and snapped it.
It was with a nation rather than a single man, though, that the true battle lay. For 12 months of the year Gillespie charmed and cajoled all of Ireland into attending at Prestbury Park; then, for four days, he had to stop all of Ireland entering Cheltenham’s inner sanctum, the holy of holies, the winner’s enclosure.
In 1996, Gillespie was swept along in the Pamplona stampede that accompanied Imperial Call’s Gold Cup victory. By the time he reached winning trainer Fergie Sutherland, who had sadly had his left leg amputated in the Korean War, Gillespie too had suffered a loss. His watch had gone.
Twelve months later, as the horde welcomed back Istabraq, the MD put in a devastating rugby tackle on a figure he spotted vaulting the fence. Only when the protagonists gathered themselves did Gillespie discover that the interloper was, in fact, Aidan O’Brien, Istabraq’s trainer.
And so it went on, this Horatius on the bridge against the Etruscans (a theme I, personally, do not think is explored sufficiently in betting shops up and down the country).
We’d forgotten he was used to taking on the masses and had dealt with far more serious drinkers
But now Edward and his trusty shield are gone and his 6ft frame has been replaced by poor little Ian Renton, who is probably practising Men Of Harlech as we speak. It will be a miracle if his suits finish the week without footprints on them.
The everyman Gillespie will not be forgotten quickly. His ability to run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds was so acute that he even managed to find a favourable constituency in the press room.
I can thank him for recommending a round of golf during Festival week at Cleeve Hill Golf Club, spread over the escarpment that overlooks the course. The view from the highest point of the Cotswolds is amazing and when the helicopters come swarming in just over your head it’s as if a piece of the Mekong Delta has come to Gloucestershire.
Further afield, another memory is when Edward once escorted a ragged platoon of journalists to the Pardubicka, 60 miles east of Prague in the Czech Republic.
It was a surreal experience, viewing burial sites around the Pardubice racecourse as the works of Shakin’ Stevens and the Rubettes belted out over the Tannoy.
Adjacent to the dreaded Taxis fence, which is named after a Czech prince who risked his noble head on horseback, was a tended memorial to Kamil Kuchovsky. The local rider had been taken from us the previous year, but it was no bone-shattering end in the bottom of the dyke. The old boy died at home on his bed.
Further out in the country was a clutch of headstones, an apparent consequence of some bloody pile-up. The three men down below, however, were victims of the speedway track that once offered a different sort of horsepower to Pardubice’s spectators.
To recover from this ordeal, a group of us self-confessed swashbucklers of the Fourth Estate went out to a bar. It was heaving with locals. We were surprised to be joined at the pool table by EG, whom we imagined would stumble out after the first few glasses of frothing pivo.
Many, many hours later with the remaining Czechs in the building fast asleep, there was only one person who wanted to carry on, the same one who looked the freshest in the hotel foyer next morning.
We’d forgotten that Edward Gillespie was used to taking on the masses and had dealt with far more serious drinkers than us.