Crossed wires on the cross country

Cross country at Flagg

Cross country at Flagg

The Cross Country race at Cheltenham has attracted strongly differing views since it was introduced in 2005. This year it was no different, with several factors contributing to boost the opposition to the race.

First, it was postponed for two days, because parts of the track in the centre of the racecourse were frozen, as they had not been covered. Secondly, once the race had a slot on Thursday allocated, it was delayed again, following the dreadful accident to JT McNamara. In effect, circumstances put the race under a cloud, as Ted Walsh, who was on the Channel 4 team last week explained.

He said, “It’s a great spectacle and it was just unfortunate that it occurred straight after poor JT McNamara had been taken to hospital in an air ambulance. I think if the gold cup had been on at that time it would have had the same effect. There was just a cloud over the race this year, but I certainly do think that the race has a future.”

That was as far removed as you could get from the view of trainer Gary Moore, who said in the Racing Post yesterday that it was “a complete and utter waste of time that none of the jockeys want to ride in.” Maybe he thinks that because he hasn’t had a runner in it.

Owner David Johnson is another who doesn’t rate the race worthy of its place in the Festival schedule, though he was rather less scathing when he said the race “might have run its course and lost its appeal.”

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Of course, for the spectator in the stands it is a complicated race to follow, with all the twists and turns, and most of the action taking place well away from the majority of spectators. But as trainer Kim Bailey, whose Wedger Pardy was third last year and took part again this time, said, “I think it’s very important that we hold on to it. You’ve only got to look at the number of people who go out into the middle of the track to watch it to know how popular it is. The racing purist might not approve of it, but a lot of people attending Cheltenham aren’t there purely for the races and enjoy something completely different.”

I think Bailey has hit the nail on the head, and that the crux of the dislike of the cross-country race is a kind of snobbery that it doesn’t belong in “our” sport. Yet go to France or Ireland, and there’s a totally different view of cross country racing, simply because there is much more of it, as last year’s winning trainer, Philip Hobbs pointed out.

He said, “In France it’s a different discipline and they have loads of it, and Ireland has a long history of cross country too. It definitely has a placed at the meeting.”

Perhaps those who decry it as something wacky and out of place should reflect on the origins of steeplechasing, and indeed what the configuration of the early races was like. I’d like to invite them to Derbyshire’s only race meeting of the year, the High Peak Hunt point to point meeting on Easter Tuesday. There, they’ll see it in its natural environment. The Members, Supporters and Farmers race starts at the village pub, and the riders can take their own line over the dry stone walls that mark the field boundaries before they reach the actual racecourse circuit. That’s real cross country racing.

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