James Lawton: Dark side of a great spectacle casts shadow over union of man and horse

No sport, except boxing, has the power to deliver such devastation

The oldest question of one of sport's oldest games came to the valley here where its greatest challenges are presented each year.

Does National Hunt racing, a glory of the senses when is all well, when the great horses are striding home and the cheers bounce against the surrounding hills, simply take too many liberties with the health and the safety of the bravest of bloodstock?

Five dead horses yesterday, seven for the meeting. These are the most jarring of statistics. It is not a record - 10 were lost in 1996 when the festival went over just three days and the going was, at it turned out, fatally fast - but in an age when hunting is banned, when the Nanny state rears up with ever increasing force, there was an understandable concern of new pressure heading this way.

Here over the last days the going has seen good jumping conditions - a point stressed by the Cheltenham managing director, Edward Gillespie, last night as he anticipated a wave of protests led by the RSPCA. "The going has been good, and there was no jar," he said.

One contribution to yesterday's casualty list may have been the increased size of the fields, a point picked up by the RSPCA's equine consultant, David Muir.

He left the course through illness after the fifth race and was unaware of the mayhem that came in the four-mile stayers' race which resulted in three horses put down. Muir said: "It may be that we will have to turn our attention from Aintree to Cheltenham ... or it could be that it is impossible for us to do anything. I will be examining all the cases individually."

One thing is certain. There is nothing in sport, except the boxing ring, that has the power to deliver such instant devastation to the spirit as the death of a great brave animal. The ritual never changes. The screen goes up and those people whose lives are built around the training of horses are thrown into the great turmoil of their existence. They love the animals, they love what they do, but of course they know the risks - and they argue that the horses are simply doing what for them is most natural.

Animal rights supporters would fight such a view with some vehemence, but then when you see the kind of race that came second on the card yesterday you see that is an argument of some compulsion.

In that race the great jockey Tony McCoy drove Impek with his usual insistence, and, as is invariably the case, with this animal, the response was extraordinary.

He raced with a tremendous gusto and relish and when he was beaten going up the hill, by Fondmort ridden by Mick Fitzgerald with brilliant flair and great patience, you were reminded of what the sport can produce by the union of horse and man.

That is the unending appeal of the sport, the fusion of spirit and judgement, and always the sense that danger lurks at every fence. That is maybe the dark side of the sport that is so riveting.

It is the same with the boxing. There is always the terrible ambivalence when you go to the ringside and see men go to the very edge of their capacity. You watch in wonder - and sometimes in guilt.

It was a little like that yesterday when horses like Holy Orders and Mr Babbage, both trained by Willie Mullins in Ireland, suddenly slipped out of the race forever.

For three days the talk has been of Irish exhilaration, of J P McManus's derring-do at the betting counter, but here were two Irishmen who had better reason than most to count the cost in that brave bloodstock. Mullins lost two horses, McManus one, the favourite Olaso in the amateur riders' race in which his other horse Kadoun, came in a startling 50-1 winner.

If Olaso had not died, perhaps McManus would have been preoccupied with the vagaries of the betting market on a day when he was supposed to have wagered massively on another of his winners, the first race conqueror Reveillez, who was ridden by Tony McCoy, a man who regularly risks his hide in pursuit of victory.

But instead the issue was the life or death of the horses whose courage makes an increasingly profitable industry, one which, for example, has been supported to the tune of €500m (£346m) by the Irish government over the last five years. The question no doubt will come and go and leave the same moral issues, the same ambivalence.

Cheltenham last night was defending itself and horsemen were shaking their heads in regret. But of it is the way it is, and always likely to be. Horses run and jump, and that is the thrill - and the risk - of what has been drawing such compelling attention here these few days.

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