Simon Kelner: I would much rather jump over a fence than sit on it

Kelner's view

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The Independent Online


I head to Cheltenham today with some contradictory thoughts running around my head. My sense of anticipation could not be keener – breakfast at the Hollow Bottom, meeting up with old friends, the sight of the world's greatest sporting amphitheatre, the seething mass of humanity, the feeling that we're all engaged in a struggle against a common enemy (the bookies) and, of course, the thrill of watching those magnificent animals doing battle up the famous Cheltenham hill. But, sadly, the Cotswold sky is again filled with dark clouds. Two more horses were killed in the name of sport yesterday, adding to the three on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. Even those of us for whom National Hunt racing has provided moments of exhilaration and bliss have had a little more of our love for the old game chipped away. The horseracing authorities said they were accidents; no more than a tragic occupational hazard, but opponents of jump racing claimed the ground was dangerously hard.

Either way, these incidents made horrific viewing for spectators and TV viewers alike. So I am going today with some trepidation. These deaths have brought to the forefront of my mind the dangers of the sport and it's a small step from that point to considering whether it's worth it at all. I am particularly nervous, because one of my friends is part-owner of a horse running this afternoon. What if something happens to him? And what if, God forbid, my hero Kauto Star doesn't come home safe and sound in tomorrow's Gold Cup? Whatever the personal financial implications of victory in both these races, I now find myself as preoccupied with concerns for the horses' safety as with their prospects of success. Nevertheless, I can't deny that, as that roar explodes up from the stands when the starter lets the horses go at the beginning of each race, there's nowhere on earth I would rather be.

My other contradictory thought concerns another person who, I know, feels the same. Charlie Brooks is someone with whom I have spent some time at Cheltenham and we had a long-running, good-natured argument over the relative merits of Kauto Star and his great rival, Denman. His arrest at dawn on the first day of Cheltenham could not have been worse timed. As many have pointed out, Charlie had written in his column about how the build-up to the first race of the Festival meeting was "the happiest moment of my year".

I don't know if it's anything to do with laptops and mobile phones discarded in rubbish bins. Brooks and his wife could well be criminal masterminds, intent on covering up the heinous wrongdoing at News International. I assume we will find this out in the fullness of time.

For the moment, however, my hope that all the miscreants in the hacking saga face justice and that the Murdoch empire's abuse of power is fully exposed, is tempered by a more human emotion: I felt sorry for Charlie Brooks. I know exactly how bonded he is to Cheltenham – and, after all, he has earned his living in racing – and I can't help feeling that the timing was unnecessarily cruel.

I know that this will not be a popular view outside his friends and family, but life is sometimes a lot more complicated than we are led to believe.