Racing: Hot money adds to Cheltenham intrigue

For National Hunt racing it has dawned, the day anticipated all year, when those involved wake unusually early to a freezing morn and the promise of gifts and certain excess.

There is something childlike about the expectancy the Cheltenham Festival engenders, and, while it may not spread to the 12 days of Christmas, there is an extra card and an extra afternoon this spring as the great gathering in the Cotswolds stretches to four days for the first time.

There is, however, a spectre at this elongated feast. Ever since the Northern Bank headquarters in Belfast were relieved of £26.5m in a December raid, there have been fears that the cash-fest of a Cheltenham Festival would be the perfect laundering venue. A place where money changes hands more quickly than the horses run, and a place where notes with an Irish stamp, like the Irish jumpers themselves, are not conspicuously out of place.

"We have had no official indication from police, but, of course they [the launderers] will be here because where else will they go?" Edward Gillespie, the Cheltenham managing director, said yesterday. "Where else can you go where there is millions of pounds changing hands?

"We have contacted those who are liable to be taking substantial amounts of cash, i.e. the bookmakers, the Tote and the caterers. They all have an early-warning system should there be an unusual pattern of Northern Bank notes. It's like playing a high-stakes version of Old Maid. You're all right unless you get left with some of this stuff.

"But it's all mainly going to be in the [betting] ring. People aren't going to be buying cups of coffee with this money. Huge amounts of money change hands in nano seconds in the ring, about £1.5m per race."

It used to be that checking the veracity of tickets offered by touts was the height of punters' problems. That, at least, should be slightly alleviated as, for the first time since 1999, there is availability in Club and Tattersalls with official agencies for the first three days, a by-product of the extra card on Friday.

Nevertheless, the crowd will have to check the paperwork once they are inside the racecourse precinct. Gillespie added: "Our customers should be aware that if they're offered one of these [Irish notes] in their change or winnings they are within their rights to refuse it."

Then there is the novelty of four days of racing to negotiate. The new feature race, on Thursday, is the former Stayers' Hurdle in its new guise as the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. It will be a week for stayers too on the other side of the running rail.

The favourite for that race is the French horse Baracouda, but, essentially this is a straight, friendly battle in the Cotswolds between the British and the Irish. It is quite possible that the visitors will win the first three races this afternoon and, in particular, the Champion Hurdle, for which they have the first seven in the betting.

Yet the overall training honours, according to the betting markets, should rest with the perpetual British championship winner, Martin Pipe. The main rider for his stable, Timmy Murphy, is also favourite to be bearing the jockeys' crown.

As the countdown continues in Gloucestershire, Cheltenham '05 seems to have survived the removal of its star character in Best Mate, the horse who would be going for a fourth Gold Cup but for bursting a blood vessel on the gallops last Thursday.

"Beyond the racing circle," Gillespie added, "Best Mate might be the only horse people have currently heard about. It would be naïve of us not to understand that they have now got to become used to less familiar names to feel any attachment to this event. But we are almost sure that other stories will emerge."

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