Racing: Punters play down crisis talk

Stan Hey finds it is business as usual in the betting ring at Cheltenham
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The Independent Online
THE mists which clung stubbornly to the hills above the Cheltenham racecourse yesterday may yet prove to be apt images for the clouds of suspicion generated by last week's arrests of three leading jockeys and two other persons in an inquiry into race fixing. The home of National Hunt racing, as Cheltenham styles itself, had to bear the burden of rumour created by the dopings on two of its lesser tracks last March.

But you'd have to have been an investigative journalist with a profound sense of paranoia to detect any air of crisis at this most prestigious of tracks with the Cheltenham Festival itself now less than eight weeks away. The eternal optimism of punters may have something to do with this, although there were a few menacing voices among them yesterday. "If any of these allegations are true," said one who is a daily presence on the track "they'll have to come down on these jockeys like a ton of bricks."

However, it will require something more substantial than punters' wrath to confirm that racing has become the latest sport to suffer a moral spasm after rugby had its earbitings and football its bungs. Because, as everyone acknowledges in a sport which has money as the blood in its veins, the occasional bout of poisoning is expected, but rarely proves to be lethal to the body itself.

Ted Walsh, the Irish trainer over with his runner Papillon who won the Ladbroke Trophy Handicap Chase, pointed out: "There's always been a bit of skulduggery in racing, but we've been strong enough to survive. I am a bit surprised that the racing authorities have gone public so quickly, but I suppose they've got to be seen to be doing something. I know Jamie Osborne pretty well and I can't believe that he'd be involved in something like this; he's a good lad."

General sympathy for the three jockeys, suspended from riding while the investigation continues, was offset by the views of a tax inspector, taking a day off from the chaos of self-assessment, who described the jockeys' reaction to their suspension as being "hysterical". He said: "In any walk of life, if you've been placed under suspicion, you have to be suspended so that the public can retain its faith in the institution. It happened in my business a few years back so racing cannot be an exception. And any talk of a jockeys' strike is just ridiculous."

Down in the betting ring, where the bookmakers might have expected to see less business if the punters withdrew their support, there was no talk of crisis. "Business is brisk like the weather," reported one on the rails, while the veteran layer Arthur Jamieson confirmed: "There's been no backlash from the betting public. There's always been stuff like this in racing, as it's part of the game. As long as it isn't proved to be wholesale, there shouldn't be a problem. If there's anything to these arrests the sport will take a knock, but we've had them before and we're still standing."

Those who don't go racing, or who have never had a bet, may suggest that this is an act of collective self-denial by the racing fraternity, and they will probably cite the Jockey Club's uncharacteristic zeal in pursuing this case - tradition has it that their usual response to a crisis is to call a luncheon - as evidence that racing's stables need an Augean cleansing.

For the moment, though, those whose living and regular pleasure is derived from the sport plainly prefer to believe that the smoke does not have a fire as its cause. The charabanc of owners who greeted Gutteridge, the winner of the first race, typified the defiant mood. As they gathered en masse on the presentation stand to receive their trophy the unanimous verdict was that "racing is still a great day out".