Racing: Invasion of 'eventers' makes Festival a heaven for masochists

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The Independent Online

From long experience, it seems that racegoers love to suffer. They are never truly happy unless they are miserable – cut by the wind, drenched by rain, tissue thin in the sole, elbowed and trampled, bruised in the betting lines, unable to find a slat to sit on or a quiet corner for commiseration with other luckless souls.

From long experience, it seems that racegoers love to suffer. They are never truly happy unless they are miserable – cut by the wind, drenched by rain, tissue thin in the sole, elbowed and trampled, bruised in the betting lines, unable to find a slat to sit on or a quiet corner for commiseration with other luckless souls.

Nowhere is this design for living more faithfully honoured than at the Cheltenham Festival. The racing is great, the excitement high, but it takes a peculiar state of mind to endure blissfully an experience that denies creature comforts to all but a privileged minority.

On Tuesday, taking advantage of facilities faithfully provided for toilers in this trade, I watched one race in its entirety, the Champion Hurdle, before returning to the company of friends who had paid £60 to wrestle for a half a spot in the grandstand or crane their necks for a glimpse of the leaders as they came over the last and up that punishing hill. One of this goodly company was paying his first visit to Cheltenham in 10 years. "A lot has changed," he observed. "But nothing much changes." Not only could he have a perfectly wretched day backing losers but a twisted ankle to boot.

When a punter has nothing to complain about except the jockey's lack of judgement, the trainer's incompetence and the steward's indifference to breaches of rules, he may very well quit the game cold and just stay at home and kick the cat. Maybe then, this is part of the Cheltenham Festival's attraction, one that guarantees a maximum attendance of 50,000 on all three days and a good living for ticket touts.

Anyway, after wandering around for a while, pausing only to curse the inadequacy of information passed on by alleged experts of the turf, we got around to discussing the quite extraordinary willingness of the audience to pay through the nose for the barest of facilities. "Time was when this used to be a race meeting," one of my companions said, "now it's an event."

Most, I would say all, of our great sporting occasions now fall into that category. The FA Cup final, The Open, Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix, Six Nations rugby. The "event" has produced the "eventer", a type of sports fan who is less interested in the action than the occasion itself.

It's anybody's guess how long this has been going on, but I think most of us would agree that the enormous influence of television has been central to the way people look at sport and what they expect it to provide. The Irish visitors apart, I'm certain anyway that the majority in attendance at the Cheltenham Festival this week are not regular racegoers or regular betters.

We were kicking this thought around, or at least giving it some minor motion when two men were heard agreeing that things hadn't shaped up quite as they imagined. "I guess to really enjoy it you need to be up there," one of them said, pointing directly at a line of hospitality boxes. This isn't necessarily the case but it gives some sort of pointer to the way things have been heading for some time.

When the original plans for a new Wembley Stadium were released two or three years ago (I've quite lost track of that shambles), the true football fan did not figure very high on the list of priorities. You see, the division in sport is not social but financial. The people first catered for are the people who can afford the fancy prices without checking with their bank accounts.

Goodness knows how many have availed themselves of such a facility at the Festival this week but from first-hand experience I can tell you what life was like for the majority. It is not that many years since it was possible to belly up to one of the course's many bars. Now you're lucky to get in the door. Perfectly sober, it's difficult to walk more than a yard in a straight line.

By the way. There are notices apologising for inconvenience caused by the construction of a new concourse. All in the name of progress.

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