Almanack

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The fields at the Garthorpe Festival may have been on the thin side (see left), but they were thinner still at the Blankney meeting, where Mister Chippendale had the easiest task of the day. Sadly, having walked over for victory in the Members' race, the nag was disqualified when his rider forgot to weigh in.

Scots lost and won

PAKISTAN'S Mir Zaman Gul has been banned for four months for unusual use of the forehead, and the world of squash must have been hoping for a month or two without fights, controversy or rows. It was not to be: before the week was out the fur was flying again.

This time the ruckus was at the European Team Championships in Zoetermeer, in the Netherlands, where Scotland got lost and Sweden got angry. The tie between the two countries started 12 minutes late because Scotland's men's team showed up on the wrong court at the Dekker Club Complex. When the match eventually got underway, Sweden were defeated 3-1, costing them a place in the semi-finals and dooming them to the relegation play-offs where they may lose their place in the top group. Fuming Swedish officials instantly lodged a protest.

An over-reaction, you might think, or a clutch at the final straw. But Lennart Larsson, the Swedish team coach, was in deadly earnest. 'It is nonsense,' he fumed. 'It was clear which court we were due to play on. They should be ready to play, not just in the building. Our players were warmed up and were just left there not knowing what was going on.'

Embarrassed tournament officials hummed and haahed and eventually decided that since the Scotland team had at least been inside the complex - if not in the right part of it - at the scheduled start time, the result should stand. Cue more Scandinavian ire. 'We feel very bad about this,' Larsson stormed. 'I cannot understand the decision. It is very unfair.'

Almanack sides with the Swedes: the Dutch officials have created a very dangerous precedent. Don't be surprised if a few more squash players get tactically 'lost' on their way to the court in the near future.

Sproat's conversion

AMONG the thousands in the Wembley crowd at yesterday's Rugby League Challenge Cup Final was Iain Sproat, the Minister for Sport. No doubt he was made especially welcome by his hosts, for he has succeeded in his campaign, first mentioned in this column in January, to have rugby league recognised by the union-only bastions of the Army and the RAF.

Last week in Hansard the following answer appeared under Defence questions: 'Mr Hanley (Minister for the Armed Forces, and, we can safely assume, no relation to Ellery) is pleased to announce that rugby league is now on the same footing as other sports in the services. If a sport is to be able to compete for public and non-public funds it needs to have a properly constituted and recognised association. I am pleased to be able to say that both the Army and RAF rugby league associations have sought, and been granted, such recognition.'

Almanack lost no time in telephoning Mr Sproat's office. Had the minister indulged in a little high-level nudging? Had Sport 'leant' on Defence? 'Mr Sproat had a meeting with Mr Hanley,' a source intoned, 'where he suggested that this was an idea worth looking at. Mr Hanley went away and investigated, and saw the commitment and the desire to play rugby league in the services.' Naturally Mr Sproat is delighted by the outcome, but regards it as a mere skirmish in the battle for greater understanding between the two codes.

The minister, the source could further reveal, had especially hoped for a solution to this particular problem before this weekend's match at Wembley. We hope that Maurice Lindsay, the Rugby League's chief executive, reserved him a particularly comfy seat.

Tradition rules, up to a point

TO sunny Garthorpe, in Leicestershire, for the first National Festival of point-to-point racing, an event billed as the 'Cheltenham' of the amateur jumping game. There were indeed similarities. Green rolling hills, stiff fences, packed bars and a gigantic television screen sponsored by a French car manufacturer - the very stuff of British racing. And doggies everywhere: labbies, salukis, dalmatians, lurchers, setters and terriers of every size and shape panted and strained and woofed. What could be more blissful for the fan of country pursuits?

Strangely, not all those present were happy. For one thing, despite the thousands of humans and hundreds of dogs, not many horses had shown up, which was a shame. 'We've got five horses back at home,' said Stephen Clark, a saddler down from Yorkshire for the day, 'and I wish we'd brought a couple down today. But we're saving them up for my daughter to ride in our local point-to-point this weekend.' That was the trouble, he explained: too many events, not enough competitors. 'It's a good idea, this festival,' he said. 'But they should hold it right at the end of the season to get bigger fields.'

Another gripe was the hype of it all, a sneaking suspicion of Festival Marquees and Glossy Brochures, Diamondvision Screens and Citroen Girls. Some point-to-point people are not keen on this public relations nonsense: it's all a bit flash. 'Look at the size of that bloody trophy,' one old boy muttered as the prize for the Men's Open was awarded. 'We'd have been glad of that for winning the Grand National in our day.'

But enough of this carping. There may not have been gigantic fields, but there was plenty of action. Mike Felton, the most consistently successful point-to-point jockey of recent years, rode a storming finish on Proud Sun to take the opening race by a nose.

The second race went to a less well-known jockey. 'I've never ridden a winner before,' John Cornwall said in the jockeys' changing-room after the race. 'I might never get another one. I've got to make the most of it.' John, a car-parts wholesaler who lives just down the road from the Garthorpe track, had waited a long time for his success. 'That was my 52nd ride,' he said, grinning. 'I've had seven second places and 10 thirds but I couldn't get a bloody winner before today - it was a suicide job. I've no idea what happened behind me.'

The bookmakers - all 47 of them - were not so happy. Even the favourite who fell behind John Cornwall's horse failed to raise a smile on the rails. 'It's terrible,' moaned Glyn Jones, a local layer. 'There's too many bookies and not enough money. I took pounds 360 on the last race. I had two out of the five runners not backed at all.'

The Garthorpe Festival was great fun, and most of the 'outsiders' who attended will have enjoyed themselves immensely, for all the mutterings of the die- hards. But point-to-pointing remains a sort of private world with its own customs and courtesies. Nineteen-year-old Kim Gilman took a tremendous fall at the final fence in the Ladies Open and was carted off in an ambulance with a nasty broken collarbone. Soon after she reappeared by the paddock. Why hadn't she gone off to hospital, or home? 'Oh, I want to watch a mate ride in the next race,' she said. It wouldn't happen at Cheltenham.

(Photograph omitted)

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