Racing: Thrill of painful pleasures

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RACEGOERS love to suffer. They are never truly happy unless they are miserable, shiny in the seat and thin in the sole, elbowed and trampled and bruised in cramped space, unable to find a ledge to sit on or a winner to back, and sinking deeper into debt.

Nowhere is this design for living more faithfully honoured than at Prestbury Park in March, when it is possible to hear even the most sagacious connoisseurs crying out in pain after three days of fruitless endeavour at the Cheltenham Festival.

Creature comforts are all very well, but the clientele embraced by corporate hospitality - fewer in numbers this year, it seems, but I'm only guessing - has little in common with a hardy breed.

The truth is that when fully paid-up racegoers have nothing to complain about except the jockey's failings, the trainer's incompetence and the steward's indifference to careless driving, they may well give up the game and just stay home and kick the cat.

People who never risked anything on a horse, and lost, and cursed, and went right back to try again, will never understand what makes racing so fascinating, so thrilling.

If you think it's purely about cashing in a winning ticket, you are wrong. If you think it isn't a sport, just rich citizens indulging themselves, there is a gap in your education.

On Tuesday, while in search of practical information, and carefully avoiding amateur philosophers, I fell into conversation with two men who were jostling for a view of Granville Again, their astute fancy in the Champion Hurdle. Watching the horses parade, one of the men wistfully said: 'Wouldn't it be marvellous to be sending out a runner here?'

He went on to say that they had owned a young hurdler, not much of a horse but one that brought them a great deal of pleasure until the recession engineered the collapse of their business.

Where it had been normal for them to wager in hundreds of pounds, they were down to tenners and fivers. 'Just scratching about on the Tote,' he said. 'What with a tax bill to pay and very little coming in, I can't afford to risk any more.'

Later, from the stands, they cheered as Peter Scudamore brought Granville Again up Cheltenham hill. 'Go on Scu,' they cried, 'go on.' 'Nice for you,' I said when the race was over.

In their shrugs you could see how it was to be starting again almost from scratch. Two tenners at 13-2. Time was when they would have called for champagne. Now it was pints of bitter in plastic glasses.

They know that the essential qualifications for racegoing are physical hardihood, self-reliance, cheerfulness in the face of adversity and a shrugging acceptance of bad luck and impecuniousness. Those who don't prepare themselves for these hazards have nowhere to turn for sympathy.

Anyway, there are a great number of people who get considerably more from racing than a lunge at the betting shop window. What they get from the Cheltenham festival is the thrill of seeing expertly trained jumpers in full flight beneath brave and talented men who risk more of their good health in one race than professional footballers risk in a season.

That this experience can be obtained without fear of being set upon by tribal warriors, and that manners are reasonable even in the crowded bars, says a lot for racing's hard-pressed tradition.

Doubtless a number of pockets will be picked this week, not least by the management, who are charging pounds 50 for admission to the members' enclosure; but as one delirious punter put it after bringing off a sizeable coup yesterday, there is nowhere in sport this week that he would prefer to be.

I'd no sooner wondered about this, and wondered at the ease with which British sports fans have come to accept privations that would appal Americans, than I came across an Irishman who would settle for watching the race knee-deep in mud if Chatam wins the Gold Cup today to complete a resounding double for Martin Pipe and Peter Scudamore.

Of course, we are not talking about patriotism here. 'I'm not at Cheltenham to fly our colours,' he said. 'To hell with the discomfort. Just let Chatam get there and I'll be as happy as a pig in mire.' Strange folk, racegoers.