Cheltenham: Backing losers in the perfect atmosphere

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A HAZARD of privileged access at Cheltenham's annual jump racing carnival is the constant availability of worthless information. No sooner has it been resolved to ignore all unsolicited advice than you fall into misleading conversation.

For example, a personal selection on Tuesday, one based on the conclusion of a friend who devotes much time to these matters, was Norman Williamson's ride in the last, the Stakis Casinos Final, on the Irish-trained mare Generosa.

Until shortly after Istabraq's marvellous victory in the Champion Hurdle my faith in Generosa as a saving bet was unshakeable. It was then that I renewed acquaintance in the unsaddling enclosure with a well-connected, impeccably groomed Irishman who expressed strong views about the controversial outcome of last Saturday's heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield before admitting that it was not turning out to be one of his better days.

A tall man, he bent closer. "But all is not lost," he confided. "Pay attention to Galant Moss in the last because from what I've been told they have him well handicapped."

Later, at a vantage point high over the sun-kissed course - I can't think of many more glorious sights than Prestbury Park in such weather - and in the presence of predominantly Irish punters, I spoke about this with the friend who advised Generosa as the saving selection. "It's never a good thing to change your mind," he said. But resolution had weakened with the additional knowledge that Galant Moss was being sent out by Martin Pipe under the champion jockey, Tony McCoy.

As they came to the last it appeared to all assembled that Galant Moss had been perfectly set out for the haul of three miles and two furlongs, but it proved too much for him when Generosa took up the running to win by five lengths at the handsome odds of 12-1. "There you are," my friend said. "How many more times do you have to be told about the perils of idle gossip."

Never mind, when a punter has nothing to complain about except the imagined dishonesty of jockeys, the incompetence of trainers and the stewards' indifference to fouls, he may just as well quit the game cold and stay at home and watch the history channel.

If improvements at Cheltenham have left punters with less cause for complaint about the absence of creature comforts, the impression remains that they are never truly happy unless they are miserable - shiny in the seat and tissue-thin in the sole, unable to find a step to stand on or a winner to back, stony broke and sinking hopelessly deeper into debt.

One of Cheltenham's many delights is to mix with a lot of people who are expert and hospitable and easygoing with their knowledge, and impossible to grade socially. A gathering united in a lovely landscape by the horse.

People who have never risked money on a horse - and lost, and cursed, and gone back to the boards to bet the next race - will never understand what it is that makes racing so fascinating, so thrilling.

If you think it's purely about trying to find a winner, you are wrong. If you think it isn't a sport, you should think again.

Watching Istabraq annihilate the field to become Ireland's first since Monksfield to win two successive Champion Hurdles you had a clear sense of sporting greatness. "Like all terrific athletes he's got class and determination," somebody said. "You get goose-bumps watching him."

From the sound of it this view was shared by many in the audience, their cheers carrying far over the rolling countryside.

Even at long range, yesterday's scene had all the ingredients of a memorable sporting occasion. A couple of lunges did nothing to improve things personally but today is another story.

With two fancies in mind it may be sensible to cancel news delivery and wise up to the fact that there is more misinformation current on the process of finding winners than on any other topic in sport.