COMMENTARY : Jumps keep common touch

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The Independent Online
They say that no amount of money can guarantee success on the turf, but when the Flat campaign proper starts at Doncaster on Thursday, it will swiftly become apparent that the old rule now applies for only six months each year. The Maktoum brothers' vast investment in bloodstock will dominate from day one, and worthwhile triumphs for trainers with fewer than 50 horses to look after will become an endangered, if not extinct, species.

Having poured so much money in, of course, the big Flat owners deserve their success. Yet how refreshing it was, in the week before the return of the super-rich, to see the Cheltenham Festival prove once again that over the sticks, the numbers game is a lottery. Between them, Ferdy Murphy (37-horse stable), Jimmy Harris (34) and Wilf Storey (14) prepare fewer horses than David Nicholson (91). While the champion trainer made the short trip home empty-handed, however, his three colleagues accounted for four of the Festival's 20 races. Kim Bailey's 81-strong string also finished without a winner.

How limp it will all feel at Town Moor on Thursday, just a week after the riotous scenes which followed Imperial Call's victory in the Gold Cup. Without doubt, the all-powerful owners from Robert Sangster onwards have brought many benefits to Flat racing, but any lingering pretence that it remains a sport rather than an industry is now hopeless.

Unless you are a sheikh, or perhaps the chairman of a privatised utility, the summer game is inaccessible, and the feeling of exclusion may be permeating through to the ordinary spectator too. The type, for example, who once packed the downs on Derby day but are now conspicuously absent. The sport of kings it may be, but if the commoners are completely ignored they will go elsewhere and racing will feel the loss.

Jumping, by contrast, appears to be in rude health, not least in Ireland where a combination of an improved economy and positive action by the Turf Club enabled the visitors to return home with an almost unprecedented seven winners. Amid the post-Festival depression which always takes hold in the gathering gloom of Thursday evening, one consolation was that while it might be 362 days to the next one, the Irish resurgence should ensure that it will be better than ever.

By then, we should also have a new champion National Hunt jockey, since while Tony McCoy partnered only one winner at Cheltenham, a treble at Lingfield on Saturday took him 30 clear of David Bridgwater in the race for the title. McCoy is now only a 1-5 chance with William Hill to add the senior title to last year's success among the conditional riders. On 17 August last year, the odds were 7-1.

Richard Dunwoody overturned a similar deficit to beat Adrian Maguire two seasons ago, but in those days Martin Pipe's yard could be relied upon to send out dozens of winners in the final weeks of the campaign. "We don't get many wrong," David Hood of William Hill, said yesterday, "but we have to say we underestimated McCoy's chance."

Injuries to Adrian Maguire and Norman Williamson have certainly made McCoy's progress easier, but his persistent habit of winning on relatively unfancied horses is the mark of an exceptional talent. If all his potential rivals are fit for the start of the next championship, the contest should be sufficiently unpredictable to hold the attention throughout the year.

Contrast again with the situation on the level, where Lanfranco Dettori would surely need to be suspended for at least three months to be in the slightest danger. A little competition between the codes is a good thing, but as the spokes prepare to turn once again on the summer cycle, the brave men and women of the winter sport are winning all ends up.

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