Pulses race among the nags and glad rags

Sport on TV Giles Smith
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The Independent Online
THIS was Channel 4's first year down at the Cheltenham Festival and, boy, did they spoil us. Daily live reports, nightly highlights - what you might call horse blanket coverage. And at 9am each day, special editions of The Morning Line brought us tips and form and exclusive weather updates. "It was cold again this morning," said Brough Scott on Thursday, as if this was unusual for an open field in Britain in mid-March. "If you're coming," advised Derek Thompson, "bring a coat", which was useful for all of us who, even at that moment, were busy loading the car with beach balls and stripey towels.

Chiefly, The Morning Line was a chance to see the horses stretching in the early-morning light (always attractive) and to see a white-faced Thompson and company doing the same (less so). Thompson asked Ted Walsh where he would place his £5 in the Daily Express Triumph Hurdle. Walsh said he would probably spend in on an ice cream because, as far as he was concerned, there was nothing in that race worth getting behind. You could sense Thompson, in an early-morning kind of way, trying to take this on board - the idea that there might be possibly a horse race on which, after informed consideration, you would opt not to gamble.

One of the Sunday tabloids last week accused Derek Thompson (the man we call "Tommo") of running a phone information line in which the tips only materialise after several expensive minutes of phone chat. Tommo's home overlooks the course at Newmarket and it was claimed that he likes to describe the view from the window before getting down to the vital question of whether Dungaree Lad has got it in him for the 3.30.

This was an odd charge for the paper to make. Concision has never been the essence of phone information lines, so accusing Tommo of waffling a bit before getting down to the nitty gritty was a bit like accusing an ice-cream salesman of selling cold goods. Whatever, Tommo spent last week looking supremely unruffled by the allegations and proved himself as the only presenter in national television who can sign off convincingly with the expression "Toodle-oo".

Down in the betting ring was John McCririck, to whom Tommo refers as "Big Mac". His fingers decked as usual with clumps of gold (McNuggets, I guess you would call them), McCririck did his usual tic-tac stuff, tapping his nose and shoulders, moving his hands in the shape of the cross - basically giving us all at home the bookie's benediction. The man always dresses as if he been coated with glue and dunked into a children's dressing- up basket. For Cheltenham, the glad rags became gladder.

In fact, last week he was wearing some of the gladdest rags you have ever seen - shocking tweeds, strange brown coats with mysterious purple flaps, various nightmarish hats last sported by elderly ladies during the war. Fashion commentators are divided over whether McCririck, thus attired, cuts a smart figure at style's post-modern leading edge, or simply looks like one of those soft toys which dustmen strap to the grilles of their cars as a mascot.

"These stands are absolutely packed," said Scott as the tension gathered on Gold Cup day. "You couldn't put a pin anywhere," he added, without explaining why you would want to. There was early controversy when, during the race which Ted Walsh didn't want to bet on, Dr Leunt, on a badly congested bend, clattered through a small stretch of plastic fencing but then rejoined the race. Far from taking a short cut, the horse in fact lost ground, though amazingly it streaked through to take second. Unsurprisingly, the stewards announced an inquiry. We cut over to Ted for some insight. "It's a grey area," he said.

The stewards, though, invoking Rule 153, section three, decided it was a green area - a patch of grass outside the limits of the course - and Dr Leunt was promptly disqualified. This seemed a little harsh. After all, the horse had been jostled on to the retaining fence through no fault of its own; and the work Dr Leunt did catching up made for one of the most exciting runs seen all week. Then again, any decision which sets a precedent for horses using the space in the middle of the course is probably best resisted. Think of the knock-on effects on, for instance, picnicking.

In the Gold Cup itself, Master Oats belted through, leaving what was left of the field straggling in his wake. "It's a one-horse race, this," shouted our commentator, gloriously reclaiming the clich. Earlier, as the camera had followed Master Oats round the show-ring before the race, one of the Channel 4 team had remarked, in evident awe, "You could comb your hair in his coat, and that on a cold afternoon." It's frequently remarked that enthusiasm is infectious, though the truth is, a lot of the time, other people's enthusiasm is something one finds oneself triumphantly innoculated against. Not here, though. The enthusiasm of the Channel 4 racing crew works on you mostly because, with the exception of the odd, dodgy tip in the 2.50, they aren't trying to sell you anything. They're just offering you their delight in the hope that you might share it. And this week, how could you not?