Racing: Stocks are falling, conflict is looming. But in one corner of England, the joint is still jumping...

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The Independent Online

In this valley in Gloucestershire there will be thunder in the air for two more days, but not a whisper of war or weapons of mass destruction.

In this valley in Gloucestershire there will be thunder in the air for two more days, but not a whisper of war or weapons of mass destruction.

There is only one enemy at the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival and by about 2.45pm yesterday he was on the point of suing for peace ... or at least a brief stand-down.

The bookmaker, corporate and small, took a tremendous pounding when two favourites, Back in Front from Ireland and Azertyuiop from Somerset, came surging up the rising ground where the bravest and most talented of horseflesh fashion the legends of jump racing each early spring.

The plight of the bookmakers was so desperate that one punter suggested Tony Blair might profitably send down a recruiting officer.

But the bookmaker is always sure of a counter-attack. He will expect the shifting sands of day one to blow away and leave a familiar glint of gold sometime today or tomorrow. Wally Pyrah, of Sporting Index, said: "There's been slaughter out there today. The bookmakers took two favourites on ­ and lost. It happens.

"The Gold Cup on Thursday is the biggest betting race after the Grand National. There is a long way to go, you know."

But for the moment there was euphoria in the great stands, which packed in more than 40,000 refugees from the cares of the countdown to war.

As tradition insists, hats flew in the air. Guinness flowed and Irish priests glowed – and nowhere to be heard was a questioning word about whether such high jinks were entirely tasteful in the shadow of global conflict.

Tomorrow there may be war, conceded one of those Cheltenham legends, the great former jockey and fast emerging trainer Jonjo O'Neill, "but today I need a winner", he whispered.

O'Neill didn't get the big win that was predicted when his hopes, Rhinestone Cowboy and Intersky Falcon, were beaten into submission in the showcase Champion Hurdle by Rooster Booster. This latecomer to glory was ridden by the boyfriend of Zara Phillips, Richard Johnson, who, after breaking his right leg twice in 19 months, no doubt feels that he has had a little taste of warfare himself.

Two years ago the great meeting was wiped out by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, and some here say that wasn't so much the cancellation of a sports event as a suspension of a vital item on life's agenda.

For three days, the truth is, other realities ebb away at the edge of this valley.

Jim Lewis, the owner of Best Mate, the brilliant Gold Cup winner of last year, which will defend its title – the most prestigious in jump racing – in front of the Queen tomorrow, was not at all defensive about this truth after watching another of his horses, Impek, beaten into second place in the Irish Independent Arkle Chase.

"Yes, we have lots of problems in life but sometimes you just have to get away from them. You spend every waking hour worrying about what's going to happen tomorrow, but, you know, you come through the gates of this place and you know you are somewhere special.

"We can't make the world quite how we want it, but we can enjoy the best of it – and for me, Cheltenham is some of that."

Saddam Hussein is, O'Neill and Cheltenham say, tomorrow's business. And this sense of isolation from the cares of the world is not new. When Hitler was marching into the Sudetenland, Lester Piggott's father, Keith, was winning the Champion Hurdle on African Sister, a 10-1 shot. They ran the race in the year of Dunkirk and El Alamein. The action was, however, halted in 1944, but briefly, and as a small concession to a somewhat bigger race that had been meandering on for quite some time.

Such delicacy does not seem so imminent right now. This new war, like everything else, will just have to wait.

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