Cheltenham and Craven feast for viewers

It will be a week to keep the psychologists in business, for the climax and maturity of the National Hunt season is about to coincide with the effective birth of the Flat campaign. Cheltenham announced yesterday that it is to reschedule the Festival for 17, 18 and 19 April, dates which will lock horns with the first significant gathering of the summer version of the sport, Newmarket's Craven meeting.

It will be a week to keep the psychologists in business, for the climax and maturity of the National Hunt season is about to coincide with the effective birth of the Flat campaign. Cheltenham announced yesterday that it is to reschedule the Festival for 17, 18 and 19 April, dates which will lock horns with the first significant gathering of the summer version of the sport, Newmarket's Craven meeting.

If it is not an ideal arrangement for racing's administrators, it is a match made in heaven for television viewers. Even now holiday slips and sick notes are being prepared in anticipation of a week glued to the sofa. Newmarket have already moved their offerings forward in an effort to fit snugly with their brethren across country. Only foot-and-mouth disease, which has caused this scurried rearrangement to the calendar, can now deny an unprecedented week of racing. It remains, though, a considerable only.

Cheltenham confirmed that existing Festival tickets will be valid for the rearranged meeting. Contrary to last Thursday's muddled presentation to the media, the Prestbury Park team have decided to race during the week after Easter. The following week had been the original chosen date for the revised meeting, out of the holiday season and further away from the Grand National. That period, however, coincided with the Punchestown Festival which Cheltenham may have believed was going to be cancelled. If that is to happen, it will not be announced for some time yet.

Cheltenham will now attempt to race during the week they originally said was impractical because it meant engaging staff and police when they were already stretched because of Easter. "We at Cheltenham are only too conscious of the continuing foot-and-mouth crisis and the effect this is having on so many of our customers," Edward Gillespie, the course's managing director, said yesterday. "However, there is a balance to be struck.

"We are convinced that we can safely conduct a successful race meeting and that, so long as racing continues and the racecourse remains outside an infected area, then we should make every effort to hold the meeting.

"We have set dates so that the preparation of the horses and all the arrangements for the meeting can resume." There will now be a simple demarcation for those in the winter and summer camps. On the days Cheltenham offers the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Gold Cup, Newmarket will respond with the Nell Gwyn Stakes, Free Handicap and Craven Stakes. As soon as those salvos are over, Newbury will weigh in on the Saturday with the Fred Darling and Greenham Stakes.

If, as seems hugely possible, Punchestown is called off the following week, then racing will have put all its eggs in one basket, though maybe this is not the time for farming allusions.

The laurels which remain have been laid at the feet of the great god television by a fledgling Newmarket executive keen to keep in tune with the most powerful component of the media. "It's been a possibility for quite a few days that Cheltenham might go for the same days and the key to it for us was securing the television coverage," Lisa Hancock, the managing director at Headquarters, said. "We have got coverage of all the races that were scheduled to be shown. We've managed to do this by bringing the start time forward to 1.15 from 2.05 on each day.

Channel 4 will screen three races from Newmarket and four from Cheltenham each day. Those who say they are ambivalent about the merits of Flat and jumps racing will now have their favour examined. "The crowds might be affected a little, but our meeting is geared to the Flat racing purist," Hancock said. "It's always popular as it's the first big meeting of the new season. We're not in a heavily-stocked area. But we are taking all necessary precautions. It's full steam ahead for our meeting."

It is not an assertion made as loudly in other racing nations as it was last week. On Tuesday came the news that foot-and-mouth had spread to mainland Europe and, yesterday, we were told that Dubai, which hosts the World Cup a week on Saturday, was monitoring eight cases in the United Arab Emirates.

Their response was a lesson in cool. "This is natural," the agriculture minister said. "It is not strange to have limited and contained cases."

HOW THE FESTIVAL FITS INTO THE CALENDAR

MONDAY 16 APRIL

Carlisle, Chepstow, Fakenham, Hereford, Huntingdon, Kempton, Market Rasen, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plumpton, Towcester, Uttoxeter, Warwick, Wetherby, Wincanton

TUESDAY 17 APRIL

Cheltenham (Champion Hurdle), Newmarket (Nell Gwyn Stakes), Southwell, Uttoxeter

WEDNESDAY 18 APRIL

Cheltenham (Queen Mother Champion Chase), Newmarket (Free Handicap), Beverley

THURSDAY 19 APRIL

Cheltenham (Gold Cup), Newmarket (Craven Stakes), Ripon

FRIDAY 20 APRIL

Newbury, Ayr, Thirsk

SATURDAY 21 APRIL

Ayr (Scottish National), Bangor, Newbury (Greenham Stakes), Stratford, Thirsk, Wolverhampton

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