Cheltenham jumps to the defence of its new race

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Cheltenham occupies such a special place in the hearts of racing's followers that it rarely suffers concerted criticism, but the course was forced on to the defensive yesterday over the new cross-country circuit which has been built - at considerable cost - on its infield.

The first race over the new obstacles, the Sporting Index Chase on Sunday, generated publicity of the worst sort, as Leagaune was destroyed after breaking his back at the bank and ditch which is the new course's centrepiece. The same barrier also proved impassable for It's A Snip, the recent winner of the gruelling Velka Pardubicka cross-country race in the Czech Republic.

Yesterday, though, Peter McNeile, Cheltenham's marketing director, insisted that "everyone agrees that it was a straightforward racing injury, which could happen at any fence, at any course, at any time. That was corroborated by all the jockeys who rode in the race, though of course it was most unfortunate."

At a time when many courses are considering even whether to persevere with water jumps on their chase circuits, it seems strange that Cheltenham, which hardly needs to raise it profile, has invested a six-figure sum in the new venture. McNeile believes that the turnout for Sunday's race - 14 runners - demonstrates that there is a demand for this type of racing, which is popular throughout the rest of Europe, though it must be said that with the exception of McGregor The Third, the winner, and Docklands Express, running to represent the race's sponsors, the quality of Sunday's race was painfully poor.

But it would be harsh to write off the new course after just one outing, particularly since it is an organic construction which is designed to improve with age. Most of the obstacles, and the laurel bushes which have been planted to mark out the course, are still growing, and will not mature fully for several years. Racing, meanwhile, is far too conservative to accept any new concept in less than a decade and a half.

McNeile does not anticipate any immediate changes either to the bank or the other new obstacles. "The jockeys were very pleased with the way the fences rode," he said. "Leagaune had been over just the same sort of obstacle at Punchestown. It's just inevitable that occasionally a horse will make a mistake." For all the money and optimism, though, another fatality, albeit co-incidental, in next year's renewal of the Sporting Index Chase would probably reduce the new course to the status of an ornamental garden.

The Festival meeting at Cheltenham next March will be restricted to the track's traditional boundaries, but even the hurdles course has been judged unsuitable for Vintage Crop, the 1993 Melbourne Cup winner. Dermot Weld, his trainer, announced yesterday that Vintage Crop will not be campaigned over hurdles this season, adding to the disappointment of Ireland's ante- post backers following reports of a set-back to his stable-mate, Fortune And Fame.

Weld said yesterday that Fortune And Fame, fourth to Alderbrook in the Champion Hurdle last season, rapped his near-fore leg last week. "It's not that serious," Weld said, though his subsequent comments were notably guarded. "It's still very early but he has definitely not been ruled in or out of the Champion Hurdle yet." Fortune And Fame remains a 14-1 chance for the Festival with William Hill.