Racing: Hales finds atonement with Azertyuiop

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The Independent Online

It may be the most profane betting market of the jumps season, and so pseudo-Hibernian in places that there is an incipient dread that riverdancing may break out at any minute. But at the heart of it all there is one thing, and one thing only. Or rather, yesterday there were 110 of them and all returned safely.

It may be the most profane betting market of the jumps season, and so pseudo-Hibernian in places that there is an incipient dread that riverdancing may break out at any minute. But at the heart of it all there is one thing, and one thing only. Or rather, yesterday there were 110 of them and all returned safely.

Horses, and the love of them, are what make the sport and here, where the best of Irish and British come together in intense but good-natured rivalry, it was possible to feel the waves of emotion sweeping from the stands and lapping over the first wave of equine gladiators, the bay, the brown, the chestnut, as they stepped out to do battle on our behalf. Pleasure, anticipation, excitement, a warm familiarity and a real shiver as the first Cheltenham roar goes up with the tapes.

Horses give so much, so unknowingly, presenting us with an almost unpayable debt. John Hales, owner of the brilliant young chaser Azertyuiop, is a highly successful businessman, per se hard-headed. But after his horse's dazzling success in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy he was almost choking. The occasion, the being in the crucible of the winner's circle, brought memories of another bearer of his yellow colours, and a degree of self flagellation. "It is my single most awful regret that I was never able to repay One Man, never able to thank him for what he gave to me and my family," he said. "After he won the Champion Chase, I allowed myself to be talked into going for the money at Liverpool, and he was killed.

"I was new to the game then and not experienced enough to say no, and because of that One Man was not able to enjoy the retirement he should have had. I was almost sickened by it and it took me a while to come back into racing after that. But the people in jump racing drew me back. You can feel it here, today, what the game means."

Any temptation to take Azertyuiop anywhere else this season will be resisted. His next stop will be Hales's farm near Shifnal, Shropshire, where he will laze away the summer with his good friend Mister Banjo. "They get spoiled and fussed over with us," he added, "the very least we can do."

To a degree it was a day of atonement for Edward O'Grady, too, when Back In Front proved himself aptly named in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. The Irish trainer is another to have known the dark side soon after a day in the sun here.

Twenty-five years ago his Golden Cygnet spreadeagled his field in the same race and gave every appearance of being perhaps the best horse there has ever been but was dead a few weeks later, put down two days after a neck-crunching fall in the Scottish Champion Hurdle. Time has done its healing but O'Grady remembers the moment his bewildered young star, his neck grotesquely swollen, leaned against him almost in supplication in the privacy of his stable. "Please God, this one will be given the time to prove himself that the other one was not," he said.

Such was the contemptuous ease of his taking of the junior crown, Back In Front is now rivaling Rooster Booster for favouritism for next year's Champion Hurdle.

Away from the hearts, this is a business with a head. Something like £1m in bets was turned over on the course here yesterday, a proportion of it in defiance of a new ruling.

The recent emergence of internet betting exchanges, where on-course bookmakers can hedge at generous prices, has turned the rules of engagement in the ring upside down. Wodges of money can be sent off-course instead of spread around and kept in play on the spot, but there is as yet no real grip on the effect that modern technology will have on an age-old system of control.

The arbiters of on-course betting have issued a ban on mobile phones from pitches but as was evident yesterday it is not only unenforcible but regarded as Luddite, and as effective as was King Canute, in an industry that is rapidly changing.

The punters were the beneficiaries here, though, as Back In Front's starting price of 3-1 was regarded as extraordinarily generous and may well have been so because of the opportunities afforded by the exchanges.

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