Sand boys defend racing's resumption

All-weather professionals dismiss foot-and-mouth fears
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was warm and vernal here yesterday in a comfortable corner of Britain's most affluent county. Deep in Surrey, it was difficult to hear the roar of revolution.

It was warm and vernal here yesterday in a comfortable corner of Britain's most affluent county. Deep in Surrey, it was difficult to hear the roar of revolution.

By their very presence, the trainers, jockeys and racegoers that added up to Lingfield Park's usual crowd of around 500 showed they were not of the belief that they might be spreading foot-and-mouth by their actions.

There was no gauntlet for them to run, no picket line, just rather unimpressive disinfected pads between the picket fences on which to cleanse the car wheels. Pressure on the foot pads on the way into the track brought up a cock-a-leekie substance. For those used to racecourse catering, it was a familiar liquid.

Indeed, it was disturbingly familiar all round. If dissension about the continuation of racing is to come, it will be in conjunction with the more bucolic Cheltenham Festival which is due to begin next Tuesday.

Lingfield and Cheltenham are not similar occasions even apart from their respective surfaces and different codes. Prestbury Park is not notable for its slow horses and meagre crowd watching in the atmosphere of the library.

Lingfield's all-weather track is usually the last refuge when other courses cannot race through poor weather. On this occasion it provided a different sanctuary, away from exclusion zones and rural neighbours.

It meant a return to the equine betting jungle for two of Lingfield's most notable faces, the professional punting pair of Eddie "The Shoe" Fremantle and Dave Nevison. Neither has been idle during the past week. They have been down the dogs. "I've been to five Crayfords and three Walthamstows," Nevison revealed. "I don't know much about the greyhounds, but I know people who do. I called in a few favours."

In the Munchkinland of the weighing room were the smallest of the small men, apparent Dickensian chimney sweeps. Lingfield is the ring where young and famished apprentices are blooded, where the more experienced men tune up for the Flat season ahead. The riders appeared not to be taking any chances and emerged from their quarters behind masks. Kickback from the surface rather than any biological worry lay behind the protection, however.

One of the senior men, Dean McKeown, had driven down from Monk Fryston in Yorkshire with two fellow jockeys. Neither the prospect of losing money on the day after just a single riding fee nor representation from the National Farmers' Union was about to stop him plying his trade. For McKeown, and his weighing-room colleagues, foot-and-mouth takes second place to hand to mouth.

"All of us sympathise with the farmers but if the government say it's all right and the Jockey Club who license us say it is okay then we are happy to go back to work," he said. "Somebody has got to turn up and ride these horses so why not me? I'm not going to stand alone with a personal protest because no-one in there would follow me. I've got three kids, a wife, four dogs, two cats, a rabbit, chickens, ponies and horses. It's hard to feed them on £65 plus VAT."

The greatest mobilisation of workers, the invasion force yesterday, came from within the ranks of the media. For each trainer there seemed to be a tripod. Racing, at the moment, may be split into suburban and farming trainers, the cavaliers and the roundheads. The latter group believe the others to be too cavalier in their attitude to the spread of disease. The trainers on parade yesterday may not be the potential losers, but they nevertheless consider the risk a chance worth taking.

"Peter Webbon [the Jockey Club chief veterinary officer] says it's 100 million-1 against us spreading anything," Philip Mitchell, the Epsom trainer, said. "All this is political, with racing having to be seen to be doing the right thing.

"The Ministry did not stop racing, we did it off our own backs, and, while there may be more outbreaks now, the Jockey Club has followed the route, they have plotted how it is spread and isolated the movement.

"We are doing everything in our power to ensure that racing does not spread this epidemic and I truly feel that trainers who adhere to the Jockey Club recommendations about basic common hygiene pose no threat to racing."

At leafy Lingfield yesterday this was not an article of faith with which anyone disagreed. At Sandown tomorrow, over the jumps, we will witness the reaction of the National Hunt fraternity.

Betting duty abolished

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has announced he is replacing the 6.75 per cent betting duty - which is passed on to punters in a 9 per cent tax - with a 15 per cent gross profits tax on bookmakers from 1 January 2002. Bookmakers can absorb the new tax themselves, allowing punters to bet tax-free in the United Kingdom.