Racing: Bookings give lift to Festival build-up

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The Independent Online

Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's managing director, was a spectator at Whaddon Road yesterday to witness the town's historic FA Cup victory over Oldham. It was probably the first piece of live sporting action he had seen for some time.

It has not been a fortuitous nine months for Gillespie and his Gloucestershire course. Working backwards, Prestbury Park has missed the New Year's Day card featuring the Unicoin Chase, the landmark Tripleprint Gold Cup day and, most damaging of all, the 2001 Festival.

The nightmare of the Festival postponement may be sweaty and recurring, but the fingers could snap and the sad saga alleviated quite simply if the meeting of 2002 is allowed to run its natural course. There is no need to wish for a dramatic Cheltenham because, for as long as horses are asked to jump obstacles, the Festival will generate a unique spectacle. It just needs to go ahead.

"We have been trying ever since we started racing in the autumn, when people were looking back, to look forward," Gillespie said yesterday. "Morale-wise it has not been good recently. For the members, the boxholders and the regular supporters. But if we have a successful Festival hopefully we can put everything else behind us. It is crucial that we have three successful days in March.

"It's important not only after last year but after our recent disappointments. It's incredibly important."

There were, by their own admission, mistakes made by the Cheltenham team in the handling of last year's spring highlight. Gillespie liaised with the Gloucestershire farmers' union and hoteliers' association in the summer and travelled to Ireland to emphasise the importance of the Irish contingent coming to the course.

Annual membership is nearly full after an angry response from some sections to Cheltenham's offers of compensation for the loss of the Festival. "Not everybody thought we were doing the right thing last March," Gillespie has said. "I think we got our wires crossed with parts of the local community, not least the farmers. By the end of April we had upset virtually everybody and the team has spent the last six months trying to rectify that.

"Given the same set of circumstances – and remember we were in totally uncharted territory – people would have appreciated decisiveness and, at times, we were seen to be indecisive. It would have been better if we'd said: 'look, it's off,' two weeks earlier."

There is, however, no evidence that racegoers have been poisoned against the Festival. Gold Cup day is already sold out and 60 per cent of the first two days of the fixture has been allocated. With 7,000 bookings a week from now on anticipated, it should be full house 10 days in advance of the meeting which begins on 12 March. "There is no trace of people behaving differently this year from any other," Gillespie reported.

While the crowd booking is confirmed for Blue Riband day there is some ambiguity over arrangements on the other side of the running rail.

Adrian Maguire will renew his association with Florida Pearl, bountifully launched in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, at Leopardstown next month, but is still uncertain whether the partnership will last to the Festival. He also has commitments to Ferdy Murphy's Paris Pike. Nevertheless, there is the thrilling moment in prospect of Florida Pearl's attempt on a fourth Hennessy Gold Cup.

"Adrian has been booked for the Hennessy," Willie Mullins, the trainer, said yesterday. "I was very pleased with the King George and Florida Pearl has come out of the race great.

"We've had so much frost here we weren't able to let him out in the paddock so he's been ridden out and he's in tremendous form. The all-weather gallop hadn't frozen at all and we were able to work through."

Paris Pike was a disappointment in the Ericsson Chase over the holiday, but it transpired that he had pulled muscles in his back. The gelding is expected to recuperate in time for an assault on the Pillar Chase at Cheltenham this month. "I'll play it one day as it comes," Maguire said. "Paris Pike could be back by Cheltenham."

Istabraq continues to drift

Punter concern over the manner of Istabraq's reappearance win at Leopardstown has led to William Hill easing the gelding to 13-8, from 6-4, for a historic fourth victory in the Champion Hurdle in March.

Valiramix is now, William Hill report, the "worst result by a long way" in their ante-post book and is a 7-2 chance from 4-1, having been 40-1 in November.

It is a similar story with the Tote, who went further than William Hill with a quote of 7-4, from 13-8, for Istabraq and have introduced Pipe's French purchase, Stormez, at 14-1.