I HAVE never been to the Cheltenham Festival but I have to admit I am intrigued.

The hype surrounding jump racing’s annual showpiece seems to be growing every year.

I paid a visit to the town recently to cover a Bury match and a taxi driver I got speaking to painted a pretty vivid picture of the hustle and bustle that comes with such a high-profile event.

As we drove on the main road leading to the racecourse he spun a yarn about how much money was to be made taking punters just a couple of hundred yards down the street.

It seems some people just can’t get there quickly enough and are willing to pay top dollar to part the sea of racegoers standing in their way.

There is no doubt the venue, and in particular the setting, are a draw in themselves, and I understand the atmosphere is unique.

So it is pretty obvious the Cheltenham Festival offers a fantastic day out, but what I can’t quite pinpoint is where it ranks as a sporting spectacle.

My confusion applies to all horse racing events really – are they sport or entertainment?

There is no doubting the public appeal – the world stops turning for the duration of Cheltenham Festival’s marquee race, the Gold Cup, just as it does for the Grand National and the Derby.

In that way these big races share a national, and international, significance alongside events like Wimbledon, England cricket Test matches and the FA Cup final.

But for me there is a not-so-subtle difference.

I have enjoyed a handful of days out at the races, normally in conjunction with a stag do, and have been to Aintree to see the National.

What has always struck me is that the social aspect is just as important, if not more important, than the racing itself, and a central part of the experience is the chance to “have a flutter”.

You can’t detach gambling from horse racing, the two go hand-in-hand, and I very much doubt the sport would survive without it.

Sure, some people will go purely to watch the horses and jockeys compete, but I suspect they are in the minority.

I was really excited to see the Grand National up close, but that may have had something to do with the fact I backed the winner – Red Marauder – at ridiculously long odds on a sodden track that saw only four horses come home safely.

Of course, you can bet on pretty much anything these days, but if you took that opportunity away on finals day at SW19 or as the teams battle it out under the Wembley arch there would still be plenty to hold your attention.

I just wonder if you could say the same about horse racing’s big three.