Racing: Going good, racegoing even better

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I was having a few reflective moments between races at the Cheltenham Festival on Wednesday when five women burst into the gentlemen's toilet and commandeered the cubicles, giggling at the effrontery of their escape from the long queue outside the ladies'. The two dozen men legitimately present carried on with the business in hand completely unperturbed apart from sighing silently that we knew it wouldn't stop with the MCC.

It would be hardly worth mentioning but for the fact that when it comes to creating sporting crowds Cheltenham has transported the art to a new galaxy in which incidents like this fail to trouble the eyelids. Sport at the highest level is invariably larger than life and the mass of spectators present tend to get lifted with it but what occurs in this delightful patch of the Cotswolds in the early springtime is not easily catalogued with the usual sporting gatherings.

Attendances were up again this year. The total for the three days fell not many short of 150,000. It is difficult to assess how many of those had the time, the accommodation, the cash and the constitution necessary to withstand all three days of the Festival but it is safe to assume that most attended for one day only, so the number of people who were there was well in excess of 100,000. It is also safe to say that they worked a damn sight harder than any comparable crowd.

Racegoing is a participation sport in its own right and requires a level of concentration and movement that can become very wearing, especially when amalgamated with generous rations from the heaving bars. A cruel amount of time is spent in queues, anxiously so when the off is near and the Tote window far away. And the view is not always good. Those in the boxes enjoy the wealth of the panorama but down in the betting engine- room between the stands and the rails thousands of faces are lifted to the giant screen above the winning post as the finishers thunder past.

But comfort and vantage are not important considerations compared to the serious business of the event itself and what distinguishes Cheltenham is that the dramas on the course are rivalled by the dramas off it. Thanks to the wonders of the betting industry, it is a shared experience, for no other racing crowd bets with such fervour. Royal Ascot isn't even at the races. The Tote alone turned over pounds 8m last week and hell only knows what the bookmakers took.

This is not too soon to mention the Irish, whose presence is the most vital ingredient. We've seen from other sports - Ireland's footballing adventure under Jack Charlton was a good example - that they are able to convey boisterous and infectious enthusiasm without a trace of the unpleasantness that fans of certain other nations find impossible to subdue.

It is in the betting ring that their sporting nature finds its true outlet. Bookmaker veterans of many Festivals remember none as frightening as last week's assault. They'll remember it fondly because Irish horses did not achieve as many wins as they threatened but it was nerve-racking stuff and there were notable punting successes. Ireland's sports minister, Jim McDaid, was to be observed punching the air and screaming after the Gold Cup. He had accumulated some earlier winnings and had the lot riding on See More Business whose victory earned him pounds 73,000. He went straight to the bar and bought a round worth pounds 524. Still, we don't want to dwell on other people's sports ministers or we'll be here all day.

Suffice to say that there's nothing wrong with the economy of a country that can send over so many punters armed to the teeth for action. A bookmaker friend stationed on the rails was approached before the first race on Tuesday by a young Irishman of modest dress who asked the price about Joe Mac. When told, he said, "I'll have pounds 3,500 to win", and pulled from his pocket not so much a roll of money but a concertina made up of new fifty-pound notes folded so neatly in pairs it must have taken him all night.

He counted them out slowly, "100, 200, 300..." The horse lost and he was back next race with the more modest wager of pounds 2,500 which he proceeded to count out from his impeccable supply of fifties. That lost, too, but he returned the next day for a bet of pounds 1,500. "Are you printing these fifties?" asked my friend. "If I could print them that good I wouldn't even be here," he replied, adding: "When I collect my winnings, I'd like them back in the same condition, please." Alas, the fifties proved non- returnable.

Cheltenham abounds with fables like that but the most intriguing gambling story of the week has yet to find an end. The Scottish bookmaker Freddie Williams, who also owns a bottled water plant, paid pounds 90,000 for a prime Cheltenham pitch earlier this year and took a big bet from the legendary Irish horse owner and punter J P McManus, at a recent meeting that more than covered his outlay. Bookies tend to run for cover when J P wants to play but Williams has been enjoying some profitable encounters and on Tuesday accepted from McManus a pounds 100,000 each-way bet on Shannon Gale at 7-1.

Bookies reckon it's the biggest bet ever struck at Cheltenham and had it won Williams would have paid out pounds 875,000. As it was, the horse was placed which gave McManus a mere pounds 75,000 return.

As the betting fraternity were heaving bulky satchels into their cars on Thursday night, they were forecasting that this Ireland v Scotland battle would become even more ferocious than the one at Murrayfield yesterday.

They feared for Williams. "McManus has two devastating weapons on his side - unlimited money and inside knowledge," said one. "I wonder what J P will do with all that bottled water," said another.

Controversy over the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield world title draw in New York last weekend has been blazing fiercely all week. It has been a hot debating point in the pubs and clubs where insults have been flying at Don King, women boxing judges and the total absence of American fair play. It's been as hard to find anyone not bristling with indignation as it has been to find anyone who has actually seen the fight. The number who paid the pounds 16.95 to watch it on Sky's pay-per-view channel was 350,000 which is in sharp contrast to the 10 million who've been banging on about it.

It is as if television had never been invented and we were back in those dark days when our only guide to the progress of a fight came from W Barrington Dalby's highly suspect inter-round summaries on the radio.

But the condemnations were not totally unanimous. At least four British sports writers also scored it as a draw. Not, I hasten to add, our own Bob Mee who gives his verdict on page 13. Although I'm told it was a lousy fight, it would be of great assistance to those who like to keep their own perspective if more of us could view the evidence. Brief clips have been seen on news programmes but the whole fight was not available for viewing until Sky Sports featured it last night.

What we need now is some enterprising terrestrial channel to show it, accompanied by expert analysis, so that a more sizeable chunk of the sporting nation can make their own judgements. However, as much as they've revelled in the controversy, I doubt if they'd want to take their service to sport that far.