Racing: Festival attracts animal activists

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The Cheltenham Festival, which begins today, will produce its usual share of surprising statistics, not least with regard to the amount of food and drink the racegoers are preparing to tackle head on. One total, however, which all concerned will not want to see repeated is the double- figure body count which marred the festivities 12 months ago.

It is a statistical certainty that horses will die this week - the average is about one fatality each day - but the exceptional tally of 10 deaths last year has placed the meeting under the sort of scrutiny generally reserved for the Grand National. The racecourse authorities have made several changes to the track with safety in mind, but it still seems likely that, for the first time, this year's Festival will attract significant protest action by animal-rights activists.

A demonstration will be held outside the course on Thursday, Gold Cup day, by Animal Liberation, an umbrella organisation covering several local animal rights groups. "The Gold Cup should have been scrapped this year in memory of the 10 horses which died," James, a spokesman for Animal Liberation, said yesterday. "We're not going to stop the race, but we want to show how disgusted we are. Horses don't have the opportunity to make a decision whether to go out there or not."

The racecourse authorities, however, insist that every possible safety precaution has been taken. New rules should eliminate such potential distractions for horses as fluorescent jackets and photographers by fences, while a prolonged watering programme has produced good ground even after one of the driest winters in memory. "This course is in the best condition I've ever seen it at this time of year," Philip Arkwright, the clerk of the course, said yesterday. "But of course you can always have misfortunes. Steeplechasing is a dangerous game."

Punters, meanwhile, must brace themselves for what is often an unequal struggle with the old enemy, but at least there is no concern that the Guinness might cost more at the end of the meeting than it did at the beginning. By next year, though, it seems that an incoming Labour government may have reinstituted the second Tuesday in March as Budget day. Surely backers have enough to worry about with just the one set of people attempting to redistribute their wealth.