Want a festival tip? Sit back and enjoy jumps’ greatest spectacle


Since this week’s Cheltenham Festival is one of those occasions when even those normally impervious to racing’s appeal tune into the gee-gees, those of us able to feign some level of familiarity with the game get plagued with the inevitable “any tips?”

There’s expectation behind it too. Like the logic which dictates that a scribbler, phone-line advice pony, or any member of that gelding occupation known as “consultancy” wouldn’t have to indulge in such activity in the first place if their opinion was consistently profitable when it comes to jump-racing’s biggest shop-window.

Still, even the greatest chancers can sometimes hit the bulls-eye. That tantalising hope, combined with a confident manner, can often con the gullible into thinking Cheltenham’s financial holy grail is just the next race away.

For an opportunist, the “any tips” query can be a green light. To those less fluent in the language of bullshit it’s a quandary.

Not unreasonably Ruby Walsh gets the “any tips” line more than most. He hates it. If the great jockey doesn’t fancy one, he can’t pretend he does, although he knows the racegoer chancing his arm mostly just wants a name to be able to boast to his pals that he was talking to Ruby who likes such-and-such a horse. It doesn’t matter what horse, anyone will do.

Even those of us maintaining a vastly more flimsy pretence of ‘expertise’ get tagged with the “any tips” line. Recently this corner took pity on such a punter, pointing out that aiming to make money on one of those few weeks of the year when everything’s trying is a tough ask. And that maybe his judgement might be questionable in the first place, given who he was talking to.

But it wasn’t the inquiry about whether or not he should be in possession of an up-to-date driving licence that worried him. It was the bit about trying – “what happens the other weeks?” To which one could only reply – hmmnnn.

Well, officially, what happens is that racing’s authorities watch like hawks for any horse that might be, in the parlance of the betting ring, “not off,” as in not exhibiting all of its talent in the pursuit of better odds and a lesser handicap rating in the future. And on those occasions when a culprit is identified, the weight of officialdom comes down hard on the connections of said horse, all in the pursuit of protecting vulnerable punters from dodgy horsey types.

That’s officially; just as in officially, all the citizens of this broke, wet rock are treated equally, irrespective of wealth, influence or power; and zeitgeist entreaties to feel more patriotic pride aren’t simply a privilege for those able to afford such “paaaasitive” self-indulgence.

Reality, as per usual, is much more nuanced, and when it comes to politics, finance or the comparatively trivial pursuit of one horse passing a red lollipop in front of another, it is self-interest that normally grabs a good hold and all the official stuff dutifully trots into line behind it. Certainly in the complex link between racing and those betting on it, self-interest is essential.

Precision in policing a pursuit where a horse can be deliberately prevented from winning by simply leaving it in its box unexercised for a fortnight is impossible. But in more obvious ‘barn-door’ scenarios it is vital that those not allowing horses run on their merits are pulled on it. Otherwise the game’s credibility is shot.

In most major racing jurisdictions around the world where there is a Tote monopoly, the interests of racing professionals are tied up with punters for the simple reason that betting turnover generates prize-money. And punters convinced that the stuff going on out on the track is iffy won’t bet. Thus policing by stewards is allowed to be heavy-touch if necessary, because most everyone has a stake.

Ireland, though, is unique. Here prize-money is fundamentally dependant on the gastro-intestenal whims of government, which pumps in central funds in return for rural jobs and an opportunity for apparatchiks to mooch around the world’s great racecourses.

In such a scenario punters come a long way down the priority list. Most important of all are owners who put horses into training, thus generating jobs that justify the all-important central funding. And in return, a policing culture has grown up that is not so much light-touch as virtually non-existent.

That doesn’t mean it’s a rampant wild west out there. But there are times when only the most pea-green punters don’t feel their interests are superfluous.

Stuff that would provoke fires in the stands in Hong Kong or New York gets overlooked here by a stewarding system where officials at the coalface know perfectly well the last thing either the Turf Club and Horse Racing Ireland want is to be handed a scenario where a high-profile owner or trainer is pulled up for treating Ireland’s racecourses as their personal fiefdom to carve up.

Only the most naïve steward sticks their neck out in a culture where shrieking protests at impugned integrity can end up in the High Court. And “so what happens the other weeks” often receives a nod, a wink, and a blind eye. Unless of course, it’s a non-entity trainer or owner, in which case, officialdom dons its bowler and gets very official indeed.

So, any tips? Okay, simply enjoy it. And feel some pride too. Racing is something we really do rather well in this country, when we try.

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