Verdict is open on 10 deaths

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The Independent Online
The eight runners in the Free Handicap at Newmarket were supposed to be the focus yesterday, but instead thoughts returned to the 10 who lost their lives at the Cheltenham Festival last month as the Jockey Club published its report into the unusually high number of fatalities at National Hunt's showpiece meeting. Those who expected easy answers, however, will find only disappointment.

The 10 equine deaths at this year's Festival represented 2.7 per cent of the 364 runners, against an average for the previous 10 years of 0.952 per cent. Despite this sudden increase, though, the Racecourse Department's report concludes that "no single factor, or indeed combination of factors, is to blame for the fatalities".

The Jockey Club's inspectors watched video recordings of all 10 incidents, and consulted trainers, jockeys, vets and the RSPCA. While no obvious common factor was identified, a number of points will be given further consideration, including starting procedures, the effect of modern training techniques, the use of roving television cameras near the running rail, and the wearing of fluorescent jackets by course officials.

Some trainers also felt that the airship providing a novel camera angle for Channel 4 might have been a distraction for horses. No jockeys noticed its presence, but it was certainly a constant irritant for many racegoers throughout the Festival, and its future use must now be in considerable doubt.

The comments of Bernard Donigan, of the RSPCA, sum up the report's findings. "We've left nothing to chance," he said, "Cheltenham has done everything possible and you can't criticise them." The conclusion seems to be that fatalities are a fact of life at the Festival, and that this year's casualty rate was simply an unfortunate statistical blip. We can only hope that this attitude will not appear hopelessly complacent in the aftermath of Cheltenham 1997.

The first task for Nick Lees, Newmarket's clerk of the course, yesterday was probably to track down his Christmas card list and put a thick line through the Jockey Club's Racecourse Department. The Cheltenham post mortem was a considerable distraction from Newmarket's upbeat disclosure that, with barely a fortnight to go before the first Classics, a sponsor has been found to subsidise both the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas.

Pertemps, who also stepped in at the last minute to support the St Leger last year, will intially back the Classics on a one-off basis, but have been offered an option on both races, and the Jockey Club Stakes on the first day of the Guineas meeting, for a further two years.

This news will not be of significant interest to the connections of Cayman Kai, yesterday's Free Handicap winner, who is not entered for the 2,000 Guineas. A Group Two winner over the minimum trip last year, Cayman Kai was thought unlikely to get a mile this season, but after showing an impressive turn of foot to overtake Projection and World Premier, he was showing no sign of stopping after yesterday's seven furlongs.

Hannon bravely claimed that Regiment will go to the Guineas from his yard with a serious chance, but the trainer will be chewing the carpet if either of yesterday's placed runners takes the colts' Classic. Not that the bookmakers think it is likely: World Premier is 50-1 (from 100- 1) with William Hill, the same mark occupied by Projection and Tumbleweed Ridge, unplaced despite starting joint-favourite yesterday.

If anyone can pull off a startling result, though, Clive Brittain, World Premier's trainer, is top of the list of suspects. He proved it once again in the Earl Of Sefton Stakes, as the 14-1 chance Luso held the challenge of Smart Alec, who was sent off favourite at 6-4 on the basis of effusive praise from the spies on Luca Cumani's gallops.

Never one to set his sights too low, Brittain nominated the 1997 Dubai World Cup as a long-term target. Game though Luso may be, he is unlikely to force Cigar's connections on to a course of tranquillisers.