CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: Fringe Festival: Six backstage stories as racing rises to the challenge of Cheltenham by Sue Montgomery

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The owner

John Hales

THE journey to Cheltenham for John Hales has been via a Barbados hotel and a Durham barn. In the first, a chance meeting with one of Gordon Richards' owners sparked an interest in racing, and in the second, at the dispersal of the late Arthur Stephenson's horses, he speculated a massive 68,000gns for a young gelding, who had yet to jump a steeplechase fence in public. Three years later, One Man is the Gold Cup favourite. "My wife Pat and daughter Lisa were already involved in eventing, show jumping and showing so we decided to give racing a crack," said the Shropshire-based Hales, who runs a Midlands toy company. "When we saw One Man we thought he had a real jumper's bum, but I went 50 per cent over the price I'd intended and was shaking with nerves when I realised we'd got him. I will be terribly apprehensive and irritable at Cheltenham. Our main priority is to enjoy the day and hope, whatever happens, that One Man comes back safe and sound. But during the Gold Cup, I will want to be on my own."

The vet

Chris Riggs

IF DANOLI wins the Champion Hurdle, there is no doubt that Tom Foley will be chaired into the winners' enclosure. But atop the Irish trainer's shoulders - at least metaphorically - will be a young vet from Liverpool. Dr Chris Riggs is the man at the head of the team which saved Danoli's career after the horse broke a leg in a race nine months ago at Aintree. Riggs and his colleagues at Liverpool University Animal Hospital, Professor Barry Edwards and Yvonne Rice, worked for two hours on the stricken horse, pinning the shattered bones of his near-fore. Danoli still has three metal screws in his leg near his ankle joint. "When we did the operation, we were guarded about the prognosis because we were worried about the damage to the joint surfaces," Riggs said. "The fact that Danoli has made it back is a reflection of his courage and heart. This has enabled him to break through the pain barriers and push on. We just pray that he does well at Cheltenham. I have never been there, but wild horses won't keep me away on Tuesday."

The bookmaker

Stephen Little

AS A TEENAGER, Stephen Little once went to Cheltenham on a Raleigh Tourer as part of his ambition (which he fulfilled) to cycle to every British course. Now 49, he is arguably Britain's biggest on-course bookie. In his musquash coat he is a familiar, some say slightly eccentric, figure. But the son of a Lincolnshire clergyman is a shy, private person. "I am a figures man and avoid having opinions about horses," he said. "Those are for punters. My aim is to win a small percentage of a large turnover, which is roughly pounds 10m a year. Maths was my strong subject, but I turned down a place at Cambridge because I wanted to be a bookie." Little, who has 600 regular clients, is not afraid to stand substantial bets in the old-fashioned way, and some of his biggest have been at Cheltenham, including pounds 155,000 to pounds 80,000 about Danoli when he won two years ago. "I laid pounds 100,000 to pounds 20,000 about Miracle Man when he won last year." he said, "After looking beaten he came from nowhere to win by a short bloody head."

The stable lad

James Tully

VIKING FLAGSHIP, according to the man who tends him from dawn to beyond dusk, is back to his boisterous, cocky best. James Tully, Irish-born and Liverpool-raised, looks after the reigning two-mile champion chaser at David Nicholson's yard, and rides him out daily. It is the efforts of workers like Tully that keep the industry functioning. He has worked for Nicholson for 6 of the 10 years since leaving school - he had one chance for glory in the saddle, finishing fourth in a race five years ago - and has done Viking Flagship for nearly a year. "I took him over after Cheltenham," he said. "He's a grand horse to do, and a grand old fella to ride. In the middle of the season he did seem a bit fed up with life, but now he's started winning again he's back to his old self. I would say he's as bright as he ever was, if not a bit more. I'll be there leading him up on Wednesday, and I'd say he's got every chance of winning again. But he's the champ, and he's there to be shot at. And in that class, everything's a danger.

The breeder

John Sumner

DUBLIN FLYER is one of only two horses (Couldnt Be Better is the other) flying the flag for Britain's breeders at the sharp end in the Gold Cup. He will carry the colours of the man who has planned his life for a day such as Thursday, 73-year-old John Sumner. The 10-year- old was bred in the heart of Oxfordshire's green-welly country near Banbury, and is the epitome of what a high-class staying chaser should be, big, handsome, sound and brave. And he has some heritage to live up to, for the Grand National winners Reynoldstown and Well To Do are buried on the stud where he was born. He has already won two big races at Cheltenham, including this season's Mackeson, and finished second at the last two Festivals. The first three foals from his dam looked promising, but all suffered leg trouble. "There are so many disappointments along the way, so that when the big occasion comes it is all the sweeter," Sumner said. "Thursday will be a day of terrible emotion - it always is with a horse you've watched grow up."

The agent

David Minton

SHOULD OUR KRIS win the Triumph Hurdle on Thursday, look out for a rotund and cheerful figure among the celebrants. That will be David Minton, one of that increasingly ubiquitous species in the winners' enclosure, the bloodstock agent. The agent earns his living spotting promising young horses and directing owner or trainer towards them, and Minton, who runs the jumping arm of the British Bloodstock Agency, has been outstandingly successful. The first deal he struck was over the dual Champion Hurdler Comedy of Errors; recently Barton Bank, Travado, Remittance Man and Mysilv have confirmed the accuracy of his eye. Minton is based at Flat racing's headquarters, Newmarket, but his heart is in jumping. The multiple ownership group Million In Mind, for whom Our Kris runs, was his brainchild. "It does my reputation good when my horses win," he said. "But the pleasure I get from seeing the joy on the faces of my clients - many of whom are ordinary folk who could not afford a whole horse - is the biggest reward."

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