Residents of Cheltenham awoke on Saturday morning to find their back gardens frozen solid, but the good Lord, it seemed, had a strong fancy in the Bula Hurdle, since he had apparently spared the racecourse similar treatment. Not a whisper emerged from Prestbury Park to suggest that the afternoon's card was in the slightest doubt, and thousands of would-be spectators duly converged on the track.
It says much for the stoical good-humour of racegoers that a riot did not immediately ensue at the abrupt cancellation. Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's managing director and the acting clerk of the course on Saturday, was swift to accept responsibility, and yesterday said that "all that paying customers need to do is send in their badge or ticket receipt and their money will be refunded in full." The owners of the 46 intended runners will each receive pounds 200 towards their travelling expenses.
You cannot help feeling that the course is getting off very lightly. Some will not reclaim their money. Those who do should surely have their travel expenses refunded too, and also deserve a voucher for half-price admission in future. A sensibly-run business would consider nothing less, but Cheltenham, generally reckoned a model of sound management, is compounding a crass error of judgement with its mean-spirited response.
It was not the sort of publicity Gillespie needed on a weekend when it became clear that he is to tinker further with the schedule for Derby day at Epsom, where Gillespie is also managing director. This year's switch from the traditional Wednesday date to Saturday was hardly a raging success, but next June the premier Classic will have even more trouble getting noticed as it coincides with England's first match in the European football championship.
As a result, the post-time for the Derby is expected to be early in the afternoon, probably around 2.30, which in effect is an admission that the race just cannot cut it as a major event these days. This year's off- time of 3.50 would fall during half-time at Wembley. Gillespie said: "Our concern is to maximise the impact of the race. It could be run during half-time but we have the build-up to consider as well."
The build-up is no doubt the principal concern of the race's sponsors, Vodafone, since Channel 4's commentary team often seem to be paid according to how many mentions they can give to the sponsor. Yet while Vodafone may believe they have bought the name, they do not own the race. The choice seems to be between placing the Derby smack in the middle of one of next year's greatest sporting afternoons, or relegating it to the status of warm-up act. It should not be a difficult decision.
If we could get a few runners in the Classic with One Man's exuberance and talent, they might have to move the football. There was not a hint of the uncertainty which afflicted his jumping last season, and while it is a slight worry that he has never won at Cheltenham and only two of his 12 successes have been recorded later in the season than January, he is now a worthy favourite for the Gold Cup in March. Ladbrokes and Coral offer 5-1, while 100-30 (with Coral) is the best price for his next assignment, the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
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