Livestock crisis must come before the joys of Festival

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The Independent Online

Whether the Cheltenham Festival should go ahead at a time of great crisis for the farming industry moves each according to his or her nature. Disgracefully, it seems the nature of some is to put the pursuit of pleasure and profit above the fears of a community with which National Hunt racing is closely associated.

Whether the Cheltenham Festival should go ahead at a time of great crisis for the farming industry moves each according to his or her nature. Disgracefully, it seems the nature of some is to put the pursuit of pleasure and profit above the fears of a community with which National Hunt racing is closely associated.

A view held personally, one nobody is obliged to share, is that the Festival should have been abandoned, or at least postponed, once the smoke from incinerated livestock began to billow over the countryside. If investigations confirm that foot-and-mouth disease has spread to a farm just three miles from Lambourn, where many of the leading contenders for National Hunt's most-prized trophies are stabled, the curtain will surely come down on proceedings at Prestbury Park, but not on a debate from which it is impossible to remove all thoughts of expedient equivocation.

It is all very well and good for people to argue that an unrelentingly bleak winter has borne down so heavily on jump racing that every effort should be made to save the Festival if the risks can be proved minimal. However, when even prominent figures in the sport, including Jenny Pitman, declare themselves uncomfortable with the attitude of the Cheltenham executives it is no wonder that they are being called into question.

In a heartfelt letter to the racing authorities this week, Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, appealed for a further suspension of racing. While conversant with the difficulties this would raise, Gill made the pretty obvious point that the movement of horses to and from farms could exacerbate a situation that has many of his members staring at bankruptcy. "We must not take even the smallest risk when combating such a terrible disease," he wrote plaintively.

Predictably, for the many thousands who booked places at Cheltenham before the turn of the year and the purveyors of corporate entertainment and exorbitantly priced hotel rooms, this is only a small consideration. When set against profit, what does a national crisis mean?

Towards the end of last week a telephone call was taken here from an Irish acquaintance, a Cork man who will miss Cheltenham for the first time in many years. "I'm very sad about it because there isn't a better week," he said, "but it would be irresponsible to ignore the Government's advice. If foot-and-mouth took hold in Ireland it would have a devastating effect on our economy. What's a few days' pleasure when set against the risk? Anyone who intends to go over, and I know quite a few, should ask themselves that question."

At this point he became angry. Not so much with some of his compatriots, but people in English jump racing circles whose response to the withdrawal of Irish-trained horses from the Festival has been unavoidably dismissive. "I'm not suggesting that the meeting would be nothing without us," he said, "but from some of the things I've read you would think that we have never been more than bit players."

Nobody has contributed more to the Festival in recent years than the Irish owner JP McManus, who had three of the ante-post favourites, including the three-times Champion Hurdle winner, Istabraq, until he conformed with the Irish government's stance. As somebody said this week: "When you consider how important JP has been to the Festival, the decision not to postpone it in the first place, and again when the French horses were withdrawn, was a slap in the face. Believe me, it will be a long time before the Irish get this snub out of their system."

Anyone who has spent many years around sport will not be surprised by the stance taken up in some quarters when it became clear that the normal procedures of sport might fall victim to the threat of foot-and-mouth disease spreading throughout Europe. Sport, in the wider scheme of things, is meaningless, but as ever selfishness, greed and profit prevailed.

It would take a convincing advocate indeed to make out a case for staging the Cheltenham Festival. From here no case is discernible.

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