Racing: Sunk punters swept up in the thrill of winning

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PEOPLE who have never risked anything on a horse - and lost, and cursed, and shouldered back through the milling throng to bet the next race - will never understand what it is that makes the sport so fascinating, so exciting.

Uneducated as many of us are in the process of selection, usually serving up our worldly goods in failed attempts at inflicting superficial wounds on the bookmaking fraternity, racing isn't just about cashing a bet or (most commonly in my case) tearing up a ticket.

The feted Irish punter J P McManus is thought to have taken pounds 500,000 out of the ring when his colours were carried home brilliantly by Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. But, in the main, anybody who supposes that betting on horses can be made to pay on a regular basis should check the cost of storing their furniture.

Some specimens of the breed love to suffer. It seems that they are never happier unless they are miserable - shiny in the seat and tissue-thin in the sole, unable to find a winner to back, stony broke and sinking hopelessly deeper into debt.

A celebrated American night-club performer, the late Joe E Lewis, built an act around his gambling addiction. Coming on stage to a cry of "Post Time", he would scatter two handfuls of losing tickets into the audience and shout, "A thousand bucks for props".

Lewis' near namesake, the great world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, was once prompted to imagine the riches that would have come his way in the modern era. "Just bigger bets," he said wearily, "just bigger bets."

Big bets or small, horse players can get no more valuable advice than to steer clear of unreliable witnesses (jockeys figure prominently in this category) and stick with the plan they set out with, ignoring all subsequent information.

Failure to observe this fundamental rule led to my downfall on Tuesday when seeking winners to go with a tickle at Istabraq that turned out happily. From being firm in the belief that Martin Pipe would win the Arkle with Champleve and the last with Unsinkable Boxer I was put off by conversation.

However, Istabraq's splendid victory and the sentiment that surrounded it made up for the financial disappointments. Not since Dawn Run's heroic triumph in the 1986 Gold Cup has there been such celebrations at Prestbury Park, more moist eyes in the unsaddling enclosure.

A friend, who would not take kindly to identification, was on Istabraq at odds better considerably than the 3-1 starting price, but his anxiety before the race was just as easily explained by an emotional attachment to the horse's connections, especially its hugely talented young trainer, Aidan O'Brien.

This touches on an aspect of racing that seldom registers with the general public. Thinking back to Dawn Run's success, the sight of Jonjo O'Neill driving a brave mare up Cheltenham's punishing hill, I remember the joy expressed by a man whose bet was sunk. "What a performance," he bellowed, pounding my back in excitement, "what a bloody performance".

Similar expressions of admiration came from losing punters on Tuesday when Charlie Swan pressed the button taking Istabraq clear to win by 12 lengths and justify O'Brien's belief that there was nothing in the race that could live with the favourite.

One thought was that even people who deem an interest in racing evidence of arrested development would have found the sight thrilling.