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Racing: Will we ever learn the Festival lesson?

Byline: PAUL HAIGH

BHAT is it that makes jump racing's most eagerly awaited Festival a hideous bone yard for most punters - not for those with the sense to follow Pricewise, of course - but definitely for most?

It is not that too many horses are unexposed, because they aren't. It is not really because of Cheltenham's dissimilarity from other courses, although its undulations and the irregular positioning of its obstacles, that suits a few - the magnificent Fondmort, for example - and quite seriously inconveniences others, is undoubtedly a factor.

It's not even the vast fields, although a familiar bleat from us 'investors' (hollow laugh) as we drag ourselves repeatedly towards the bookies' butcher's knife that if only fields were restricted to, say, 14 for championship events and 18 for handicaps, not only would we have more than a miserly six races a day to enjoy but we might have a better chance of giving every runner's form the careful attention it deserves.

That argument is easily disposed of, by the way. One of the most keenly anticipated clashes this week was to have been the one between Black Jack Ketchum and Denman. It never materialised because they were given the opportunity to avoid each other.

Increase those opportunities any more than they've already been increased, and pretty soon Cheltenham wouldn't be Cheltenham' a whole pagan quasi-religion would die, and tens of thousands of rough, tough, rural drinking persons (as well as those who just fancy themselves as such) from both sides of the Irish Sea would have to take up origami and stuff while trying to work out what to do with all the unexpected cash cluttering up their pockets.

'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is a splendid old adage, and one that was wheeled out quite regularly during discussions about the advisability of the controversial step up from three days to four.

The reason why Cheltenham is brutal to most punters is the reason why it can sometimes be brutal to the horses. It is that everything is trying at Cheltenham, and not just trying but trying for their lives.

Races are run faster than anywhere else, and even faster than they used to be at Cheltenham now the super-efficient drainage system means soft-ground renewals are effectively things of the past. Horses are committed earlier and with even more reckless disregard for their own safety, by brave jockeys driven wild by dreams of glory. Then they are persisted with longer.

That's not an accusation. It's just a statement of fact. Cheltenham is different because it's everyone's Cup Final. You don't ease off. You give it everything. Then you look for more. What Cheltenham reveals to us is the extent to which we of the punting persuasion are prepared during the rest of the year to tolerate not non-trying exactly, but trying in the sense of 'essaying', with the tiny print at the bottom of the essay that says: 'If this doesn't come off, there's always another day.'

Cheltenham reminds us that we don't just tolerate this attitude but automatically factor it in to our considerations at lesser courses. It reminds us how we lull ourselves into a punting comfort zone: a zone of 'this one's off, that one won't be beaten up if things go wrong'.

There is no comfort zone at Cheltenham. There is no 'another day'. This is the day. So, how is it that every year we forget this essential difference? How is it that every year we approach these feverish four days still half-expecting our selections to be given the relatively easy rides they can get elsewhere?

How is it that this forgetfulness happens so easily not just to registered Flat addicts like this one, whose knowledge of jump racing falls sadly short of the required standard these days, but to those for whom the four days of Cheltenham is a bigger deal than anything - bigger than Christmas?

And how is it that now, when it's at last time to take down the decorations, chuck away the empties and start earning to recover the costs, there are half-cut turkeys all over the place, gobbling weakly and dolefully, mourning the punting carnage they've only narrowly survived - and counting away the seemingly interminable days till mid-March 2007?
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Mar 18, 2006
Words:710
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