Feast of racing awaits to fill void

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The Independent Online

The touts were still here, needless to say, loitering outside the racecourse like starving vultures. "Any spare tickets for tomorrow?" They will be asking the same on Armageddon. It will probably feel something rather like Cheltenham did yesterday, after all, windswept and forsaken.

The abrupt loss of the second day of the Festival, due to high winds, caused a shocking void in the heart of this great carnival. But it will be amply redressed over the next two days, when punters gird themselves for an unprecedented marathon of top-class racing.

The decision to abandon the card, at 8.30am, came out of the blue. But if it caused much dismay, above all among those who could only come yesterday, there was little bitterness. Edward Gillespie and his management team had effectively been left with little choice. Winds gusting past 50mph had been forecast into mid-afternoon, requiring the evacuation of temporary facilities for both prince and pauper – namely, hospitality suites in the tented village, and a pavilion in the public enclosure. "It takes 2,500 people and has the longest bar in the county," Gillespie reflected bleakly. "Probably the longest in the country." Instead yesterday became the longest day for public houses throughout Gloucestershire.

On the eve of the meeting, the first gale of the week had pole-axed a restaurant tent. Gillespie had surveyed the damage, pondered the forecast, and found both frightening. No risks of any kind could be taken.

"Ever since Sunday we've been aware that today could be a problem," he said. "We were encouraged because the forecasts were being down-rated. But we came in at 5am and found that the forecast remained precisely the same, that they anticipated winds gusting up to 50mph. And the significance of that is that our temporary structures in the village cannot be occupied with winds of that strength. Not just there, either, but also in the Best Mate enclosure. There are 10,000 people in each of those areas. We could not invite people on to this site because we could not guarantee their safety."

Shortly before 7am, the tempest sent a tangible warning when a roof in the tented village "basically exploded from wind pressure". From that moment, the writing was on the wall. An hour later, Gillespie convened a meeting of engineers and emergency services. "The advice to a man was that we could not open the gates at 10.30am," he said. "And nor was it likely that the site would be safe until beyond 3pm. It was quite plain that it would be impossible to race today."

It was the first Festival day lost to the weather since 1978, when snow caused the postponement of the Gold Cup until April. Fortunately an unequivocal improvement in the forecast enabled the six races scheduled yesterday to be added to the two remaining cards.

All tickets for yesterday will be automatically refunded, but they will not be transferable to today. Capacity has none the less been raised from 55,000 to 65,000, and Gillespie promised that nobody would be turned away today. Tomorrow had already sold out.

"I'm very sorry for those people to whom today was their big day, and for the inconvenience they've been put to," Gillespie emphasised. "We're selling tickets for tomorrow so hopefully many of those who were disappointed can come and enjoy a day's racing."

He could not put a figure on the loss of revenue, but the racecourse insurers had already been contacted. It is estimated that gate receipts might have totalled £1.35m and food and drink another £2.5m.

Many logistical headaches attend the reinforcement of the remaining cards. Even though there are 298 stables on site, comfortably housing even the 185 horses running today, many Irish horses had been booked in for the week and the stables at Warwick racecourse were hurriedly requisitioned.

One of those Irish horses was at the centre of another vital conference, even as racing came under threat. With two to jump, Sizing Europe had looked sure to win the Smurfit Champion Hurdle on the first day, only to fade so quickly that he was eased to a walk on the flat. But his trainer, Henry de Bromhead, now thinks he knows why.

"When he first trotted this morning, he looked lame behind for about five steps, which I was quite pleased about because I thought we had a reason," he said. "But when I did it again he came sound, so I thought I had imagined it. He did the same for the racecourse vet, though, so he examined him and pressed down on a joint in his back where he was very sore. So that looks like the problem."

Controversy likely over bets

Bookmakers burrowed into their rule books yesterday – and the small print they found will delight some punters and infuriate others.

"Bets stand," was the main message the betting industry was trying to put across after the abandonment and the switching of yesterday's six races to today and tomorrow.

But 10 of the Festival's remaining races will now be run on a different track to that scheduled.

Today's contests will be on the Old Course, and tomorrow's on the New Course – a bigger, tougher track that suits some horses better than others. Today's World Hurdle, for example, had been due to be held on the New track.

Firms stress they are trying to deal with the issue in "the fairest way". Some punters, for example, had the chance to void bets by last night.

Many punters will be happy with the way the problem is being handled. If the going alters as well, there are bound to be complaints. Some will feel their stakes should be returned because the races have been modified.

Chris Corrigan

Chris McGrath

Nap: High Chimes

(Cheltenham 2.50)

NB: Don't Push It

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