Hypnotic highs outweigh lows
Carnival of intoxicating hope and brilliance can lift racing’s gloom after ‘year of the cloud’
Cheltenham is less about remembering than forgetting, until the 5.15 race on the Friday brings the reckoning.
Winners and losers are indistinguishable in the exodus from the Festival, but each punter is churning inside, with smugness or regret. In this tide of emotion, beneath Cleeve Hill, racing’s difficulties are easily ignored. The world’s greatest National Hunt meeting is no moral maze.
Even without Sprinter Sacre, the poster horse of the winter game, this week’s meeting deposits the usual quota of melodrama, romance and athletic brilliance, equine and human.
Unusually, though, Cheltenham commences with the meeting’s most tooled-up trainer, Willie Mullins, calling 2014 “the year of the cloud”, after anxieties about steroids and potential “nobbling” forced the sport into a defensive posture on the eve of a carnival that seeks to sell jump racing outside its heartlands.
The other perennial spectre is horses being killed at fences and hurdles and the apparently increasing sensitivity in society about animals occasionally perishing in the act of doing what they were bred to do.
The debate about whether Cheltenham should water the course to guarantee ‘safe ground’, a fortnight or so after the west of England was threatening to become the new Atlantis, confirms the urge to present a palatable spectacle to non-aficionados.
We keep hearing, meanwhile, that Cheltenham is “braced” for the wrong kind of headlines, the worst sort of scrutiny, in the wake of the recent furore over steroid abuse.
Only a profound ignorance of history could prompt a racegoer to believe their sport is pure simply because it involves beautiful horses, brightly dressed jockeys and chances to take money off bookies. The present turbulence is rooted in centuries of scheming, through greed or desperation.
None of these difficulties should be insurmountable, as the British Horseracing Authority is demonstrating by considering life bans for doped horses (the horse would not mind, but the owner certainly would).
Racing’s leaders must know the time-bomb in pharmaceutical cheating is the issue of animal cruelty. Once the public draws a connection between horses being artificially beefed up for Cheltenham or Aintree then the sport can kiss goodbye to its image as a country pursuit for all the family.
Race-fixing, doping, nobbling and ‘non-triers’ which later land betting coups for those in the know at the expense of punters are the iniquities racing is doomed to confront each day. But an admission that corruption exists and is being fought against is preferable to jabbing a stick at ‘outsiders’ and calling them ignorant troublemakers.
Surely racing must have noticed that cricket, cycling, football and the rest have been beset with scandal without going under. The deeper neurosis in racing is probably that the industry is in decline or retreating to the margins of British life. Not this week, it is not.
For four days a patch of the Cotswolds is like London at rush hour. The immense popularity of the Festival overrides the discomfort of actually going there. Gold Cup day, especially, involves five hours of shuffling from parade ring
to grandstand to bar. Few ever moan about the crush or the lost wages because Cheltenham is hypnotic and consuming: a vast exercise in renewing hope every half-hour or so, with the most intense racing, by the best horses and jockeys.
The big three championship races – Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup – are the prime narrative of rise and fall. The greatest horses elevate racing above mere gambling.
One was Arkle, which won his first Gold Cup 50 years ago this week, and attained almost holy status.
The wonderful sparseness, knowledge and clarity of Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary that day carry the Cheltenham disciple back to the essence of the meeting before it was mass entertainment.
Another historical echo this week is of the great Monksfield/Sea Pigeon/Night Nurse era in two-mile hurdling. Today’s feature – the Champion Hurdle – has a potentially vintage look, with dual winner Hurricane Fly primed to repel the next wave, led by Our Conor, The New One, My Tent Or Yours and Jezki.
This lot will have to go some way to recreate the 1970s, but this Champion Hurdle is undeniably promising.
Other magnetic moments will be Quevega’s quest to win at Cheltenham for a record sixth time, the clash of Annie Power and serial winner Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle, and Sire De Grugy in the Champion Chase.
There is plenty to be fearful of and to confront, as ever, but far more to be intoxicated by. (© Daily Telegraph, London)