The Last Word: Behind the Festival fun lie Cheltenham's killing fields

Amid the odds and wagers sit other numbers: 43 horses have died there in the past six years

The Cheltenham Festival will begin on Tuesday with the macabre ritual of a mock funeral. Protesters will carry tombstones bearing the names of horses which have died in the name of endeavour and entertainment to the gates of the racecourse. A mourner will read a eulogy to each fatality, and Deathwatch 2013 will be under way.

The racing public, drawn to the natural amphitheatre just below the limestone escarpment of the Cotswold Hills for an annual rite of renewal, will sneer about student politics and bogus symbolism. They will not linger to debate the moral ambiguity of a sport with an unfortunate habit of killing its principal attractions.

Opinions polarise, positions become more entrenched. Indifference merges with incomprehension, and racing's inexorable decline accelerates. It is already marginalised commercially. Racetracks are closing, prize money is shrinking and sponsors are beginning to wonder about the toxicity of two of its major brands, the Festival and the Grand National.

Its supporters are conditioned to deny this, even in moments of private contemplation, but racing dies a little each time the screens are erected and the fallen animal is, to use the chilling clinical term, euthanised. Sport's eternal battle between perception and reality has reached a tipping point.

The Grand National, searching for a new commercial partner in an ominously depressed market, is a more populist event. Its images of distress linger. Yet according to Animal Aid, a well-organised and increasingly assertive protest group, Cheltenham is more deadly: 43 horses have been killed there in the last six years, more than at any other British racecourse.

Another high-profile casualty like the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, the bay gelding which was put down with a lethal injection after breaking its leg while running riderless following a fall at last year's Grand National, will inten-sify the pressure on a notoriously insular, instinctively feudal sport.

This is not another hypocritical missive from the Nanny State seeking the neutering of a legitimate pursuit in the name of political orthodoxy. Speaking as someone who has accepted the risk of sailing beyond the geographic point of rescue in the Southern Ocean, man has an inalienable right to investigate the limits of mortality.

But there can never be the same certainty when other species do so involuntarily in order to provide us with a vicarious thrill. There is a huge disconnect between racing's problems and an abject promotional campaign which insists the sport is defined by "style and glamour, celebrities and socialising, the awesome horsepower, and of course the Royalty".

Racing is too readily driven by the tawdry opportunism of the gambling industry. The self-regarding stunts are increasingly crass and reached a new low with the release of a supposed fitness DVD for jockeys, inevitably sponsored by a major bookmaker. It featured a celebrity nonentity who defines herself as "a Manchester City WAG", and contained the unchallenged statement that £250 million will be wagered on the four-day Festival.

Greed is good, and its emissaries have the shrill relentlessness of barrow boys. They have insinuated themselves into the very fabric of the sport, reducing the best horses and the bravest riders to factors in a mathematical equation that enables them to shout the odds for next year's race even as this year's winner crosses the line.

Racing, whose response to losing control of the agenda has been to rebrand its marketing arm, lacks leadership and clarity of vision. Formula One successfully reinvented itself as a glorified video game in the shadow of death. The suspicion is that racing lacks similar sophistication and will remain reactive until it becomes sanitised to the point of futility.

Déjà vu feeling for Gazza return

The heart sinks and the fear strikes. Paul Gascoigne's apparently premature decision to leave his drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic in Arizona after only a month conforms to a terrible cycle of despair, delusion and denial.

His return to the UK was signalled by one of those "close friends" who offer nothing more substantial than convenient sound bites and the occasional shoulder on which to slump – or weep. They are the fools who presage Shakespearian tragedies.

The script is written. We have already had the ritual optimism that Gascoigne is "back on track". The self-flagellation of a confessional interview to a tabloid ghost or a surrogate priest on prime-time television will doubtlessly follow. Then he will enter a netherworld of good intentions and bad outcomes.

People care for him. Paul Spanjar, the director of the Providence Project in Bournemouth, is ready to renew his treatment and supervise his recovery. Friends will pay for him and strangers will pray for him. But only Gascoigne can help himself.

I hope against hope that I am mistaken and that this time it will be different. But I doubt it. What we are witnessing here is one of the most affecting of human calamities.

Harry's hope

Harry Redknapp, manager of Dubai Strollers, said a woman could take charge of a professional football club, but not in his lifetime. Really? England women's manager Hope Powell is a better coach than many self-proclaimed Premier League seers.

Michael Calvin has been nominated for columnist of the year in the Sports Journalists' Association awards

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam