Free Cheltenham Three and tell bookies to take running jump

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The Independent Online
HORSES are intelligent, I've always believed that, despite their propensity for allowing fat aristocrats to jump on their backs and pursue unsuspecting furry things. The proof came on Thursday during the Gold Cup (C4), when the Cheltenham Three - Cyborgo, See More Business and Indian Tracker - saw the somewhat daunting seventh fence coming up, had a quick word between themselves, thought "Sod that for a game of unseated riders" and took off for the Cotswolds.

They must have been reading about the Tamworth Two, and reasoned, "Well, pigs might fly and horses might as well." No doubt dedicating their freedom dash to Butch and Sundance, they were off, taking their jockeys hostage and leaving a gang of squealing punters in their wake.

Shouldn't joke, really, as it was an injury to Cyborgo that caused the cock-up. Still, not many horses died over the three days. Par for the racecourse, really. As one of those vegetarian bleeding hearts who believe that non-human animals should have roughly the same rights as the homo sapiens variety, anything I have to say on the subject would be crushingly predictable, so I'll finish before I start.

During the Cheltenham Festival, any self-respecting television reviewer's mission is clear: cancel the afternoons, settle down with a notepad and ample supplies of a favoured intoxicant, and wait for inspiration to flow. Stuck in the office this week, I didn't have that option, and had to view most of the proceedings from the back of a telly-punters' scrum, but still, three days of elite racing amid a Bacchanalian free-for-all set in a rural idyll lit like the Cote d'Azur should have provided plenty of material.

Except for the fact that, as I came to realise over the three days, I really don't care about racing. I mean really, not in the slightest. The only thoughts I do have are for the high-calibre horseflesh induced by a mixture of cajoling and punishment to operate at maximum capacity for a few minutes in order to keep the bookmakers in business.

Still, there were a few sights to behold, such as the Queen Mother arriving in a borrowed Popemobile. There was nearly a national tragedy when one horse flicked its head petulantly as the nonagenarian icon gave it a pre- race once-over, almost landing a blow on the royal bonce. You can see the caption: "Get that bloody woman away from me. Doesn't she know I'm a republican?"

There was plenty of upper-class silliness, especially among the owners, though my favourites were the owners of Upgrade, a winner on Thursday, who in all their Brummie arriviste glory came on like Harry Enfield's self-made "considerably-richer-than-yow" pair of horrors. "Up the Brits!" shrieked the woman in an unwitting but brutal self-caricature. It's moments like this that bring home the notion that some people have too much money and too much time on their hands.

There was also the appalling Leslie Graham, who seemed to have wandered in from some dressage event next door and found herself by the rail with a microphone stuck in her hand, asking questions of a Gary Newbonesque gaucheness. I'm told that some trainers forbid winning jockeys from talking to her, and it would be nice to think that perhaps this was a quality control thing - "You're not to open your mouth to her until she comes up with some decent bloody questions!" Apparently, though, it's simply because they have old-fashioned ideas that the riders' first words should be to the trainers and owners themselves, which seems fair enough.

I never like slagging off sportsmen for linguistic infelicities - it's rather like criticising Barry Davies for his pathetic inability to do a decent man-marking job on Ryan Giggs. But there was a delightful if brief outbreak of the "literally" syndrome after the Gold Cup, from the winning jockey, Andrew Thornton. Questioned by Brough Scott (who, for all his experience as an interviewer, is like Graham without the riding togs), he proffered the view that, "this puts the icing on my season - literally," followed a couple of sentences later by a reflection on his resurgence: "Literally -I was nearly on the scrapheap three years ago."

Television will never be able to do justice to horse racing until it's done in scratch-and-sniff sensurround. Going to the races is about so much more than what happens on the track - the bookies, the nobs, the Irish, the florid stink of booze and the grime of cash. Compared to the grand social panorama it offers, for a non-gambler like me, the issue of which horse comes first is a minor matter, and I found myself musing on the beauty of the aerial shots and the splendour of the hills. Until the Cheltenham Three took off on their mad dash for freedom.