A sport still uncontaminated by modern life

Steeplechasing brings out the best in people, just as other sports bring out the worst
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, this week's big sporting occasion has all the ingredients of a massive anti-climax. The contestant whom everyone was hoping would win for the fourth year in succession has had to withdraw. Thousands of pounds have been lost as other popular favourites have fallen by the wayside. One dropped dead on Wednesday. All the same, you can rest assured that this afternoon's Cheltenham Gold Cup will be the stirring, dramatic, emotional occasion that it always is. FA Cup finals can disappoint, as can Calcutta Cups or London marathons, but there is no such thing as a bad Gold Cup.

On the face of it, this week's big sporting occasion has all the ingredients of a massive anti-climax. The contestant whom everyone was hoping would win for the fourth year in succession has had to withdraw. Thousands of pounds have been lost as other popular favourites have fallen by the wayside. One dropped dead on Wednesday. All the same, you can rest assured that this afternoon's Cheltenham Gold Cup will be the stirring, dramatic, emotional occasion that it always is. FA Cup finals can disappoint, as can Calcutta Cups or London marathons, but there is no such thing as a bad Gold Cup.

In this sense, at least, steeplechasing is unusual. On the whole, sport tends to feed on the great contemporary addictions of greed, partisanship and hero-worship and yet, the greater the part it plays in our emotional lives, the more it tends to disappoint. The money becomes obscene. The competitiveness ends in defeat, recrimination or violence. The heroes turn out to be vain, oafish, egotistical, or to have been on drugs all the time.

It is difficult to think of a sport that has not in some way been contaminated by the pressures of modern life - apart, that is, from National Hunt racing. The spirit, courage, passion and good humour that will be in evidence as tired horses battle their way up the Cheltenham hill this afternoon is arguably unique at big-time sporting events.

All of which is rather odd since horse-racing has never exactly been an activity for the pure in heart. Indeed, it is the tension between honesty and dodginess, both in men and in horses, that gives it much of its charm.

Money has always been the propelling force behind racing, from the grandness of the bloodstock industry to the scruffiness of the betting-shop. The recent government-encouraged marketing of gambling, combined with the effect of the internet, has led to ever more exciting ways for ordinary people to lose their cash on horses.

The whiff of corruption, rumours of doping, foul play and non-triers, has always hung over racing, and new stories of some big scam, involving top jockeys, are always about to break. Yet the sport has never primarily been about gambling - or at least, there is something about it, an inbuilt balance, which ensures that the good outweighs the bad.

Some would argue that the reason why steeplechasing has never been infected by the modern world is that it has never entered it in the first place. Although it is much less class-ridden than it used to be, the shadow of the old order remains in its hierarchy, with owners representing the aristocracy, trainers as the middle class and jockeys the eager, chippy proletariat, and attending an event like this week's National Hunt Festival can be like stepping back in time.

The enemies of racing find all this distinctly suspect. An animal rights campaigner, for example, would, perhaps rightly, see a new opportunity for outrage as horses crash to the ground, sometimes never to get up again, or are ridden out, exhausted, under the whip, cheered on by plump traditionalists in the grandstand. The argument that thoroughbreds are born to race, that without events like Cheltenham they would not exist, is unlikely to convince those who believe that any animal suffering for human fun is unacceptable.

How about this then? Steeplechasing is a noble sport. It brings out the best in people, just as other sports bring out the worst. You will not get a racing riot. Chants of "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!" do not resound around the winner's enclosure. Stewards are not forced to resign after racegoers have sent them death threats.

At Cheltenham, the winners are cheered in by the whole crowd, not just those who have backed them. Favourites give pleasure when they win and - this is unusual in sport - earn sympathy when they do not. Members of the racing establishment are celebrated in triumph, but then so is the owner of a small yard down in the west country.

Of course, there are spivs and shysters in racing, but its lack of general mean-spiritedness is rare. In how many sports will you see losing participants congratulating with genuine, unforced pleasure a rival who has just beaten them in the way that jockeys do as they pull up after the winning-post?

On the whole, those who emerge from steeplechasing into the bright light of celebrity tend to be saner, less egotistical, more grounded than stars from other sports. A couple of powerful factors are at work here. The first is simply that riding racehorses fast over fences and hurdles is a tough and dangerous business. The fact that it can kill or cripple you is unsurprisingly not something racing people tend to chat about, but it instils a sense of proportion when it comes to matters of ego and pride, of winning and losing.

Without wishing to go all Jilly Cooper on you, I would have to conclude that it is, above all else, the horses that give National Hunt racing its nobility. Not intelligent animals, and sometimes reluctant combatants who have to be kidded into giving their best, they bring to the races the simple virtues of courage and grace that, when communicated to humans, make us better humoured, more generous of spirit, than we would otherwise be.

terblacker@aol.com

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