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

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