Inside track to a different perspective

David Seymour advocates an alternative Festival view point
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The Independent Online
For 95 per cent of racegoers, there are only two feasible vantage points from which to witness the afternoon's events unfold - either the cheek by jowl security of the stands or the slightly guilty comfort that lies within sight of the TV screen in the main bar or the hospitality chalet. But for the adventurous five per cent, no trip to the races - particularly next week's Cheltenham Festival - would be complete without at least one sortie into the vast beyond of the centre of the track to watch a race from beside a fence or hurdle.

A few leave the (relative) comfort of the terraces for the dubious privilege of waving vigorously via the cameras to a hawk-eyed relative as the field streams over the water-jump, but the real outdoor aficionado makes the effort because only out there can you have any idea of the awesome power of Monsieur Le Cure at an open ditch, or the frightening speed with which Alderbrook flies his hurdles.

Away from the stands, it is a different spectacle altogether. No longer is it a case of a distant group of thoroughbreds and vivid jockey silks gliding smoothly round while spied through binoculars, but rather a thundering, snorting pack bearing down on each obstacle to the accompaniment of slapping whips and cursing pilots. The moments before the off are almost irrelevant from a distance but experienced at close quarters that last minute before the tapes go up for the Gold Cup is unbearably tense, and exciting.

The sceptic might object that it is all a bit like spectating at the Tour de France - three hours waiting around for five seconds' action. But this is where tactics come in. Race selection is important. A three mile chase on many courses will see the field jump the same fence three times.

Then there is the question of crossing the centre of the course. With modest exertion, it is often quite possible to watch the first in the back straight and still be comfortably in situ for the last on the run- in. Cheltenham is a problem because of the dyke that runs diagonally across the course, but at Newbury it is worth taking in four fences of the Hennessy (three of them different).

Inevitably, the further away from the stands you get, the sparser the company becomes. The water-jump at Newbury on a big day can be almost as crowded as the seafood bar, but a trek to one of the ditches at Wincanton, both as far away from the winning post as they could be, usually ensures that two Red Cross officials and a fence builder are the limit of intelligent life.

But the open spaces are certainly the place to appreciate the roar of the crowd. On the same basis that in most choirs no one can hear anyone else because he is bellowing too much, it is impossible to know what noise the crowd is making when you are shouting yourself hoarse from their midst as your nap of the day lurches up the Cheltenham hill. But from the reaches of the second-last, the crescendo engendered by a crowd of 40,000 is guaranteed to make the adrenalin run fast - even if it cannot do the same for your rapidly weakening selection.

The determination to boldly go where no sane punter would dream of going has yielded some dramatic and some sad moments: Norton's Coin's gentle but firm indication that he had had enough of racing at Newbury's final ditch, Carvill's Hill's monumental error at the first fence of the 1992 Gold Cup and the pulsating threefold leap at the last in the same race as Cool Ground, The Fellow and Docklands Express fought it out.

There will be new heroes next week, fresh hard-luck stories for sure. Will I be watching from the grandstand or will the Barbour be my only protection against the weather's worst? No contest.