Racing - Peter Corrigan: When a champion has the look of a loser

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The Independent Online

If it is any consolation to champion jockey Tony McCoy, he wasn't the only miserable sod at Cheltenham last week. True, the rest of us didn't suffer the personal blow of losing a brilliant partner in the Champion Hurdle but, even allowing for the pangs of that particular occupational hazard, he carried the look of the deeply dejected for much of the three days.

Sportsmen possessed of his hungry ability to get first to a winning post are disinclined to bear failure with fortitude but even in the racing press his sulky demeanour was remarked upon in unsympathetic terms because it was felt to be out of character.

McCoy made a point yesterday of responding to his critics by saying that his distraught appearance was due not to three days of frustration that brought him four seconds and only one winner but to the death of Valiramix. "I know I'm not sometimes the most pleasant person in the world but a lot of people got it wrong in saying I was upset because I kept finishing second, – it was Valiramix that upset me," he told the Racing Post.

His self-assessment was more than a little harsh because he is regarded in this generally chummy and philosophical sport as a true gent in and out of the saddle, but his neglect of the usual niceties didn't impress; particularly his lack of acknowledgement for those jockeys who won the races in which he was trying so desperately to succeed.

In the post-race milling round on the other side of the finishing line, handshakes and pats on the back are freely exchanged but, apparently, McCoy was not in a magnanimous mood.

Perhaps, he saved his congratulations for the privacy of the weighing room but it is shame that his disappointing results were accompanied by such outward moroseness. After all, his ability as a great jockey was never in question; apart from his one winning run on Royal Auclair on Thursday, his mounts were not up to it and, by common consent, he was looking extremely likely to clinch the Champion Hurdle before Valiramix suffered the fall that led to its death.

McCoy was certainly not alone in leaving Cheltenham with his hopes unfulfilled. A number of leading trainers and jockeys fell short of their own expectations. Mick Fitzgerald, who was second favourite to McCoy to be top jockey at Cheltenham, did not finish in the first four in any of his 14 races. Indeed, those who rose to the occasion were heavily outnumbered by those who failed abjectly to live up to their billing and Cheltenham 2002 will be remembered as a Festival for under-achievers and, sadly, McCoy was its patron.

If these words betray the sourness of a losing punter, I can't deny that there is an element of indignation in this discourse. But since I don't bet a lot of money, I don't lose much and even then don't begrudge the losses if I've had some excitement as a result of my financial involvement.

But I was one of many who backed fancied horses and received nothing like a run for their money. Istabraq was the most glaring example of a dream that didn't get the distance.

Istabraq's connections were far less than bullish about his chances in the Champion Hurdle and there were enough whispers circulating to put off his most fervent admirers. But not everyone has access to the grapevine and most of those who committed themselves to the arduous task of attending Cheltenham might not have been aware of the misgivings.

That probably explains the sudden rush of late cash on the course that reinstated him as favourite despite the growing support for Landing Light and the luckless Valiramix.

We now know that Istabraq's jockey Charlie Swan was told not to push the horse if he felt anything amiss but, surely, if there was the slightest risk, he should not have been allowed to the starting gate let alone the second hurdle? And did anyone think of the countless thousands who would be unable to resist betting on the magnificent beast if he appeared?

It says a lot for the much-maligned punters that they gave Istabraq a sympathetic cheer when he was pulled up after the second. Fine, if their wasted wagers had gone towards a few luxuries for his retirement home but their cash went on a totally forlorn journey into the bookmakers' satchels without the remotest hope of a return. What did the bookies do to deserve that massive donation to their favourite charity?

There have been varying estimates about the size of their profits from the £200m said to have been staked over the three days. Ladbrokes claimed it was the most profitable Cheltenham they'd ever had while William Hill called it "cracking"; which only goes to support the fact that few results went to form.

The professional experts were almost entirely stumped. A colleague on our racing desk tells me that the leading three tipping services – who provide tips at a heavy weekly fee – offered 31 selections during the three days and only one, Galileo, obliged.

The free service provided by the newspapers did much better, especially the Independent on Sunday. Our racing correspondent Sue Montgomery, who calls herself Selene when she is tipping, provided the star nap of the week – Blowing Wind at 25-1.

And Stan Hey advised us to bet on Champion Hurdle winner Hors La Loi. Too bad I took no notice of either of my colleagues.

The under-performing charge also applies to the Festival itself. There's talk about enlarging it to a four-day meeting and plans are in hand to widen the course at the approaches to the winning post. Unfortunately, I hear of no intention to improve the lot of the 50,000-plus customers who are crammed into the place each day.

British sport, generally, takes for granted the stoicism of those who attend events instead of staying home to watch them on television. The main trouble is usually involved in getting to and from the event but, at least, when you get there you feel the journey was worth it.

For many at Cheltenham it is a toss-up which is worse, getting there or being there. The traffic flow is appalling and even if you go by train and take one of the big fleet of buses they lay on, progress towards the course is so slow most get off and walk the last mile or so.

Once in, the atmosphere is incredible and the roar that greets a popular winner is worth being part of, but unless you have a privileged place the rest can be a nightmare, especially when the weather is cruel. A good view is hard to get and it helps that there are television screens scattered around the premises. I'd like to know how many go there and end up watching the races on television. At least half, I would guess.

Placing a bet either with a bookmaker or the Tote is a nervy battle and it is impossible to do both. The main betting hall is a scrum and the access to the course a jammed bottleneck. Every bookie is surrounded by a scrum of frantic money wavers. The only time you can guarantee a quick visit to the toilet is to go while a race is on. And you can spend a frustrating hour queueing for the sort of fast food that makes you yearn for a fast.

This is after you've paid £60 to get in. Entry to Tattersalls costs £30 and you pay another £25 to sit in the Guinness Stand which doesn't have a roof.

Friends who had the misfortune to be in that stand said that all they could see were horses' arses; and the view of the finish wasn't all that good, either. If Cheltenham are thinking of improvements for next year they should first consult their customers.