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
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
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

SEN Teacher

£110 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently seeking a ...

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor