Chris McGrath: When, not if, Saturday comes...

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

Now there's a novelty. A sporting showcase, coming to Britain in 2012, that might actually make a few quid. And while some of us will dependably respond with the same, supercilious dread that animates all right-thinking Britons, in contemplating a national ego trip down the precipice of Mount Olympus, it's pretty hard to argue with the market forces.

Rest assured, if the people at Cheltenham decide to move the Festival to finish on a Saturday, they will only do so because it's worth their while. And when the bottom line equals bums on seats, presumably everybody's happy.

You might think that there are more than enough bums in racing already. But they are apparently too scrawny and wrinkled for the marketing men, who instead crave the firm, fleshy hams of ABC1 youngsters with disposable income (a tautology if ever you heard one).

Edward Gillespie, the racecourse's energetic impresario, views a Festival Saturday with pleasing candour, saying that it could only be embraced with new wallets in mind, rather than "the same wallets getting thinner". In the dilatory language generally reserved for these situations, his acknowledgement this week that a Saturday finish is "very possible" for 2012 is equivalent to carving the date on marble tablets. Presumably all that is now required is for his number crunchers to quantify the impact on hospitality income, which is infamously contingent on the fact that it is easier to lie to your shareholders than to your spouse.

This sudden freedom to invade the personal space of Uttoxeter – the present sanctuary for anyone retaining adequate reserves of currency or desperation, a fortnight today – is traced to the Racing For Change project (RFC). So while its authors should really be setting about the fixture list in hobnailed boots, at least this represents evidence that they intend to do more than merely varnish their own toenails.

Not that their determination to shift red-letter days to Saturday will be universally welcome. Those who pack out the weekday carnivals share a jour de fête exhilaration predicated on the fact that millions of saps instead remain manacled to their desks. The May meeting at Chester, for instance, owes much of its magic to the fact that half the town has taken three days off to hobble down the cobbled lanes to the Roodee. Communal pleasures of this kind evoke medieval fairs, and it would be a shame to rupture that frayed lineage in the slavish misapprehension that Saturdays will inevitably reach not just new wallets, but new hearts.

Never mind the Premier League. This year, as in many others, Cheltenham week ends with Six Nations rugby and you have to be realistic about how many people might tune into the Ladbrokes World Hurdle on Channel 4, with a Grand Slam potentially on the line on the BBC.

The Festival's hosts, in fairness, recognise that it would be pointless to shift the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself to Saturday, as Friday already guarantees 65,000 punters – instead of 50,000 – and is reckoned worth twice as much as any other day. The theory is that the present Thursday card, perceived as the weakest since the extension to a fourth day in 2005, could target those who have flocked to Ascot's "Royal" Saturday.

Ascot was already racing on the Saturday – albeit the chief function of the old Heath meeting was to let everyone snigger at the chap who got lost on his way to a wedding. But a Wednesday-to-Saturday Cheltenham will probably achieve net audience gains, on and off the track, with corresponding dividends in betting, so we had better get used to it.

What really needs redressing is this mysterious horror of quality racing on Sundays, in conspicuous contrast with Ireland. In the meantime, it is worth remembering that, among professionals consulted by RFC, none showed more passion than those still persisting in the fantasy that the Derby be returned to Wednesday.

They should be careful what they wish for. If RFC really had balls, it might well switch the Derby back to Wednesday – but to an evening meeting. That would guarantee uncontested, prime time television coverage, and give Londoners a giant barbecue on one of the longest evenings of the summer.

For now, there remains no mistaking the British Turf's one, true National institution. And with the Cheltenham horses biding their time, the focus of the better horses in action today is instead Aintree next month. Comply Or Die, who won the National in 2008 and came second last year, continues his preparations in the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster, and should show signs of life with the blinkers restored. Keep an eye also on Iris De Balme, who seeks to resume the giddy progress he was making before his lay-off, but the ground is turning against Merigo. In contrast, Mill Side (3.25) will not have enjoyed the mud on his recent return from a break, but had previously looked progressive on a better surface, his win round here in December proving strong form.

Big Fella Thanks, sixth in the National as a novice last year, gets a sharpener at Newbury, but Battlecry (3.10) looks well treated on his best form, which he neared in beating all bar a smart prospect at Wetherby last time. This horse was actually third in the RSA Chase in his youth. But nobody noticed, because it was run on a Thursday.

Binocular puts perils of ante-post laying in focus

There will have been a few dry-mouthed double takes yesterday when news emerged that Binocular may yet sidle back into the Smurfit Champion Hurdle field. Ruled out three weeks ago, because of a muscle problem, he has now been returned to training and a continued revival in his work next week would leave the door ajar to a comeback to rival that of Kicking King, who won the 2005 Gold Cup in similar circumstances.

It's a good job Betfair wasn't around in Lazarus's day. Punters have matched £881 between 999-1 and 100-1 about Binocular since trainer Nicky Henderson made his initial announcement. No doubt he will get plenty of stick now. But punters have to accept that he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.

Henderson was trying to keep the public informed, and even their trainers cannot be entirely equal to the unpredictability of horses. Yesterday, for instance, Henderson himself had to issue an equivocal prognosis for one of his big Festival hopes in Punchestowns, who has suffered a recurrence of a problem that had seemed to clear up quickly only a few days ago.

People are rather more predictable, of course. There will always be wise guys around prepared to exploit those they perceive as gullible fools, by laying non-runners. They have now discovered just how clever they really are.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Don't Rush It (5.20 Kelso)

This Irish import made a promising debut for his new trainer at Catterick last month, set plenty to do by an inexperienced rider over an inadequate trip – reservations that seem to have been redressed.

*Next Best

Sa Suffit (3.35 Kelso)

A hard-fought success on his re-appearance left its mark in a defeat at Cheltenham, but he re- sumed progress last time and can confirm himself one of the North's brightest chasing prospects here.

*One To Watch

Beggar's Opera (J H M Gosden) looked clueless during his debut behind Gumnd at Wolverhampton during the week, but grabbed the bridle late on and this son of Singspiel is sure to improve as he cottons on.

*Where The Money's Going

The fact that his RSA Chase preparations are going better than those of his stablemate, Punchestowns, saw Long Run in widespread demand yesterday – Corals typical in going 11-4 from 7-2.