Racing Commentary: Williamson seeks Festival remission: A jockey who has fallen victim to a strict regime is appealing to the Jockey Club for Cheltenham clemency

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The Independent Online
THAT the competitiveness of racing in the Nineties allows slim margin for error was vividly illustrated on Saturday when Norman Williamson and John Upson were punished harshly for perceived failures.

Williamson said yesterday that he intends to appeal against the four-day ban for careless riding imposed on him by the Doncaster stewards which will exclude him from the Cheltenham Festival. Upson was putting a brave face on the loss of 19 horses to fellow trainer Charlie Brooks. All owned by Andrew Cohen, their removal reduces Upson's string to eight.

Williamson and Upson can be regarded as victims of their time. Until recently local stewards might have looked at Williamson's riding of Cariboo Gold, looked at the date on which a ban would come into force, weighed up the marginal interference caused by Williamson's mount against the fact that he would miss the most important three days of the year and used some discretion.

Now, with racegoers and armchair pundits having access to the televised, head-on replays of races, stewards know that while they stand in judgement of jockeys, their own capabilities are being judged too. More importantly, they know that Jockey Club headquarters will not tolerate imaginative interpretations of the rules by those in the field, evinced by the swiftness with which the ruling body overturned the lenient treatment of Adrian Maguire by Warwick officials in January.

In a gentler age, Upson would have been forgiven one bad year and allowed time to shake off the malaise that has restricted his stable to five winners this season compared to 31 last term.

Instead, Cohen, head of a household-goods firm, has acted like the stereotype businessman who expects his horses to produce results with the same efficiency as his workforce.

'He (Cohen) phoned on Thursday and it was a big surprise,' Upson said of the decision that will take horses of the calibre of Zeta's Lad and Very Very Ordinary from his stable today. 'To move the horses at such short notice is unfair. You can treat crooks and thieves like that but not me.'

Upson now begins the search for new owners and jobs for the staff he must lay off. A self-made millionaire himself, he understands the philosophy behind Cohen's decision. 'I do believe that anyone is entitled to have their horses trained where they like,' he said.

In some respects it is easier to sympathise with, or at least identify with, Williamson. The six-month long sense of expectation about three days in the Cotswolds in March is shared by racing followers as much as the professionals involved. How would you like to be banned from the fun of the Festival?

One of the games associated with any big meeting began over the weekend as the rumour factory rumbled out messages suggesting that all was not well with the Champion Hurdle favourites Fortune And Fame and Oh So Risky.

Both trainers concerned, Dermot Weld and David Elsworth respectively, poured scorn on the rumours, although Elsworth also spoke enthusiastically about his other Champion hope, Muse, who is consequently 8-1 (from 12-1) for the race with William Hill and as low as 7-1 with Ladbroke.

All that can be said about the suggestions that Fortune And Fame and Oh So Risky worked uninspiringly is that if there is even a grain of truth in it then their supporters should be worried. This is the time, around 10 days before the race, when you would expect them to be going about strong work. Bulletins on their midweek exercises will be awaited with interest.

For those that keep the faith, revised prices about Fortune And Fame (3-1 from 11-4 with William Hill) and Oh So Risky (4-1 from 7-2 with Hill and Ladbroke) are tempting, particularly as one outsider with potential, Majed, will be an absentee after his Saturday defeat.

Cahervillahow, one of Ireland's foremost chasers, broke his shoulder when schooling at Leopardstown yesterday and was destroyed. Dermot Weld's General Idea damaged a tendon during racing and will miss the Grand National, while the meeting also saw the retirement of Tom Taaffe after riding a winner on All The Aces.

The Breeders' Cup Chase, won by Morley Street in 1990 and 1991, is to be scrapped after eight runnings.

(Photograph omitted)