Racing: Revelry the main contender as Flanders field renews rivalry: Richard Edmondson at Waregem tastes the carnival spirit before the Belgian Grand National

IT STARTED on cobbled streets and today the Grand Steeple Chase of Flanders (Belgian Grand National) will ensure spectators return to work with cobbled minds.

The race, first run over the stones in 1847 but now staged on turf, is the focal point of a five-day festival in the Flemish town of Waregem. Local workers are given Monday and Tuesday off to enjoy the revelry and usually Wednesday as well to recover from the celebrations.

Britain can claim a winner of the race - David Nicholson's Kildagin is the only horse in 30 years to win in successive seasons - but it is only recently that those from the British Isles have become seriously involved. The 13 that run at today's meeting is a record.

They will perform in front of 30,000 spectators (more than the paying crowd at this year's Derby) at a course more akin to Badminton than Cheltenham. Among the obstacles in the near three-mile event are an oxer, an Irish bank and the infamous water jump over the natural course of the Gaverbeek.

Until recently this made Becher's Brook look like a row of matchboxes and was particularly unfair as the spongy ground on the landing side saw contestants' legs snap like saplings in a timber thresher. Modifications two years ago have made the jump more reasonable, but it is still a daunting threat as horse and rider have to jump towards the crowd.

Prize-money (pounds 100,000 for the day and pounds 30,000 to the winner of the main race) has attracted the small yards of Rod Juckes, John Ffitch-Heyes and Dai Williams, who have also felt the pull of generous travel allowances.

'I brought three here, which means I am almost pounds 3,500 up before the horses have had to raise a canter,' Williams said yesterday. 'I think people who don't come are mad. The owners enjoy it, the trainers enjoy it, in fact everyone has a good time.'

The Newbury trainer has already entered the carnival spirit and was still enjoying local hospitality when the sun appeared yesterday. 'We got thrown out at six in the morning,' he said, 'I fed the horses on the way back.' He expects to be cobbled again tomorrow morning.

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