Racing: Safety first as tingle takes over

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The Independent Online
WITH the greatest of respect to the main fixtures at Doncaster and Newbury at the weekend they did not provide cards. They were undercards. Nothing matters from here on in (and for a great deal longer than that if you want to be pernickety) other than the Cheltenham Festival.

If you don't believe this consider several recent events. Why has Adrian Maguire, who has missed the last three Festivals, cherry-picked his recent rides so that the only seat he now takes comes with posture springing and foot stool? Why has Michael Caulfield, the secretary of the Jockeys' Association, sent a letter to his members warning them they will be off (Olympic) games should they transgress the rules in early March? Why did Carl Llewellyn, who once tried to ride in a Grand National with a broken leg, get off a horse he thought was a chancy jumper last week.

The answer is that the Festival is unmissable. For jockeys, trainers, owners, sardines (aka spectators) and the people who make it all happen, the mighty press.

Once you have managed to convince someone in newspapers that you know what you're talking about, racing becomes a doddle. They send you to the Grand National, the Derby, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders' Cup. After you've done them a few times it's even possible to get blase, but the Cheltenham Festival never changes.

When the tapes go up for the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle there's a roar that gets you even though you know it's coming, an all-over tingle you seem to get less and less in life as the years go by. You can't do without it if you've got either a biro or a whip in your hand.

Cheltenham - and the organisers should cherish this point - is a hyped event which never fails. The Prestbury Park executive should appreciate their good fortune because you would have to be a King Kong of an idiot to offset the natural advantages the meeting possesses. First there is the terrain and surroundings, which God constructed for steeplechasing before he had even thought of the horse.

In the racing game you come across colleagues such as Alan Schuback and Steve Andersen from America's Daily Racing Form who come to Prestbury Park just about every year. They don't come across the water because they are paid to do so. They come as enthusiasts.

So too do the Irish, who mean even more to the Festival than the topography. Irish horses are always a challenge to the home runners, while their followers set a similar task for the home barmen. The absence of either (and one would not come without the other) would neuter the whole occasion.

There has been a crowd limit of sorts applied this year, which my childhood confederates would happily have accepted at their regular Cheltenham Festival digs. They used to stay, before it was condemned, at the Horse and Jockey with mine host Graham Poulson, who has sideburns apparently untouched since puberty. Just to capture the spirit of National Hunt events, the pub sign featured Willie Carson on a Hamdan Al Maktoum horse.

Graham ran a busy if glitter-free hostelry where at least there was no queue to the jacuzzi. If you needed a Lilo or sunlounger for the night he was your man.

My boys would stay nowhere else and were particularly impressed when Graham told them he was a jockey of some accomplishment in his younger days. When the rude required proof of this noble boast he would lead you to a racing photograph on the wall. It depicted a rider who looked a little like Graham, and in the background you could see his recent mount bolting off into the distance as the jockey seemed to be wondering which soap powder would work best on his dirty breeches.

It wasn't a ride that Maguire or Llewellyn would have taken.