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Freshers enrol for the course

Greg Wood on an initiative to enlight students on the ways of the Turf
Can Can Charlie and Captain Marmalade will never be household names, but racing may owe them a considerable debt none the less. As they fought out a stirring finish to the novice hurdle race at Kempton yesterday, dozens of students, many turf novices themselves, were gripped as the advantage swung one way and then another. Even the replay drew gasps and winces. If just two or three catch the racing habit as a result, Kempton's foresight in offering a special student package yesterday will have been richly rewarded.

Much is said about the need to attract new racegoers if the sport is to flourish. The large number of families attending this year's Sunday meetings has been encouraging, yet many courses fail to see beyond creches and clowns as a way of introducing young people to the racing experience, which should, almost by definition, involve an occasional bet. The average five-year-old may enjoy an afternoon at the track, but then they are also likely to enjoy scribbling with felt-tip pens or playing hide-and-seek. Neither will necessarily become lifelong passions.

Students, by contrast, "can take part in the sport as a betting event, it's the real thing" as Simon Marcantonio, Kempton's public relations officer, pointed out yesterday. Just as importantly, they are also "the opinion-formers of the future". Almost 100 students were attracted by yesterday's concessions, which included admission for just pounds 5, exclusive use of the Thames Suite with a bar at student-union prices and, in many cases, free travel to the course from as far away as Norwich.

Cynics will point out that most students would walk barefoot to the North Pole if there was the promise of cheap beer when they arrived. Others might wonder how the sight of fivers being fed into the Thames Suite Tote can be squared with claims of widespread student poverty. John Holmes, the president of the turf club at the University of East Anglia, which brought a 35-strong party yesterday, sees no contradiction.

"A week tomorrow I'm going on a demonstration about student hardship," Holmes said, "and many students experience serious hardship. But the expansion of higher education has involved people for whom money is not such a problem, and we're not just talking about hooray Henrys."

Holmes, who used to appear in Grange Hill, cheerfully admits that the acting fees soon found their way to his local betting shop, and the repeat fees from the current re-runs are going the same way. Many others in his party, though, are relative newcomers to racing. "Probably about two-thirds of them hadn't been racing before a similar student day at Newmarket a few weeks ago," he said. "But they enjoyed that and they've come along again today."

Yesterday's action was just as infectious. After the battle between Can Can Charlie and Captain Marmalade - in which the former regained the lead in the final stride - one student from Brunel University who had backed the runner-up reported that he had still enjoyed the run he had had for his money. He had been racing before only once, but had already learned that "races like that really get you going, shouting and screaming".

There was something to cheer in the novice chase, too, in which Jamie Osborne produced one of the best rides even of his distinguished career. Myland, a faller on his only previous start over fences, did his best to unseat Osborne at the ninth, and then blundered so badly at the 13th that his rider was left clinging, stirrupless, to his neck.

Myland lost at least 25 lengths, and when Miracle Man, the odds-on favourite, approached the penultimate fence well clear, his backers were counting their money. Another miracle man, though, was about to have his say. Osborne brought Myland with an irresistible run to catch the leader at the last and win going away.

If his performance did not convert at least a few of the students to the pleasures of the turf, it might be wise to check their vital signs.