The latest accounts from Britain's biggest bookmaker contain a large hole. It is about five and a half feet tall, weighs in at 8st 4lb and is valued at pounds 8 million, and it should bring a warm glow to the heart even if you fielded against Lanfranco Dettori in every one of the seven races at Ascot's Festival meeting in September.
This pounds 8m figure is the best indication so far of just how much money changed hands when the nation's favourite jockey went through the card at one of the season's most valuable meetings, and implies that an earlier estimate of an industry-wide loss of pounds 30m is as close to the true figure as we are likely to get. As a result, profits at the Ladbroke group's betting division showed a slight drop compared to 1995, though recent introduction of betting on Irish Lottery numbers has proved popular with punters.
Racing turnover, however, remains depressed due to the impact of the domestic Lottery, which is disturbing news since it is only bets placed on the horses which generate the payments to the Levy which keep the entire carousel moving.
Nor will cards like this afternoon's at Cheltenham do much to tempt backers into the shops. An overnight entry of 101 was reduced to just 29 runners yesterday, which is simply not worthy of jump racing's finest track, even allowing for the fact that the going is good to firm.
The attempt by the Cheltenham executive to take advantage of the arrival of Sunday racing by extending their first big meeting from two days into a three-day "Festival" was typically adventurous, but the first afternoon 12 months ago was equally uncompetitive. With top-class racing throughout the country each weekend at present, a basic shortage of good horses is a problem which even they may struggle to overcome.
It is particularly unfortunate that the two events which have attracted the hint of a respectable muster are the ones not being televised live, while the remaining contests do not even boast the traditional advantage of small fields - namely an obvious winner or two.
The handicap hurdle which closes the card is a perfect demonstration of the problems facing punters, in that there are excellent reasons, from a poor recent run to a complete and prolonged loss of form, to oppose all four of the runners.
Much the same is true of what is arguably the most interesting race of the day, the Murphy's Hurdle, in which Aidan O'Brien's small but in-form filly Just Little will probably start favourite against Danjing, a leading juvenile hurdler for Simon Sherwood last season, but now with Martin Pipe.
Danjing is racing for the second time in three days, which is not unusual for a resident of Pipe's yard but in his case owes more to his refusal to contemplate a second circuit when fancied for the valuable race at Newbury on Wednesday. The blinkers he wore on the Flat are back on this afternoon, but while at his best he would win today's race, after such a display it is impossible to support or oppose him with any confidence.
A far more solid bet is SOUTHAMPTON (nap 2.25), whose second place behind Callisoe Bay in a good time two weeks ago gives him the edge over Lord Dorcet. The amount of work which has been put in on the gallops may be crucial in the preceding novice hurdle, in which multiple winner Coubaril faces Hunting Lore (next best 1.50), who is unraced since last season, but here it may pay to side with the lightly raced debutant rather than an opponent whose scope for further improvement is distinctly limited.
The novice chase is yet another contest which appears to boil down to two runners, and while The Last Fling has done little wrong in two races and deserves to start as favourite, Henrietta Knight's Factor Ten (3.35) showed enough at Sandown last month to suggest he can run him very close.Reuse content