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Why jump racing is better than the Flat
by Chris Cook of the Guardian
It was, sacrilegiously, at Cheltenham just a few years ago that a mate of mine, one of the team that writes the official form book, sniffed derisively and offered his opinion that jump racing had, at most, a couple more decades to live. It would fold inevitably, he felt, as more and more people realised that it was a hopelessly outmoded entertainment, like hunting.
I was shocked at the suggestion that something I enjoyed so much might have such a short shelf life but, happily, it turns out he was spouting hot air (which would be useful at Cheltenham, as visitors today will discover). Jump racing seems confident in its own popularity and the recent marketing initiative aimed at improving the sport's image has been very largely concerned with making the Flat as accessible and attractive as the winter game.

Here, then, is a countdown of the reasons why jump racing does it better.

The "natural amphitheatre" cliche does not quite hold true. Cheltenham is a lot bigger than Sandown, where you really can watch them all the way round, and the far side of the course is a long way off. Unless you have binoculars, you're going to be looking at the big screen a fair bit.

Still, it's hard to think of anywhere that makes a better fist of all the things a racecourse should do. It regularly brings together the best competitors. The undulations and stiff fences provide a thorough test, while the uphill finish generates drama as the leader gets tired. The knowledgeable, enthusiastic crowd provides tangible atmosphere. Trainers and jockeys know they haven't arrived until they've won here.
None of the Flat-only tracks fills the stage as comfortably as Cheltenham. Newmarket has history and tradition but rather lets down the casual spectator – for every race, the runners start far away and run towards you. Epsom has one big day, Goodwood puts too much of a premium on luck in running, York doesn't get the quality of runner it deserves. Results at any Flat track can be affected by draw bias, a factor mercifully absent over the jumps.

But any fan of sport should be able to enjoy themselves at Cheltenham. There is nowhere else like it, in this life or the next.

One of the Racing Post's senior writers regularly argues that part of the appeal of jump racing is the fact that it's a dangerous sport in a world that has become obsessed with health and safety.

Personally, I don't buy that. I'm quite risk-averse myself and so, I bet, is the Post's writer. I'm comfortable in a world in which asbestos is no longer used in house-building and employers will be brought up short if they subject their employees to unnecessary peril. Like most people, I have no desire to see my sporting heroes put their health at risk.

But all those obstacles mean that the winner of a jumps race has obviously achieved something, in a sense that does not apply to a Flat race. If you win a six-furlong maiden, it is almost certainly because you're a faster horse than your rivals, a trait you probably inherited from your high-achieving parents. But speed alone will not get it done over the jumps, where a moment's loss of concentration can take you out of the race.

An image that has stayed with me is of a happily mud-spattered Richard Guest and Red Marauder leaning against each other after winning the 2001 Grand National, in which only four finished. No horse or jockey has ever had to work so hard for a victory on the Flat, which is why it's so difficult to imagine Flat-racing types as heroic.

There is heroism to spare over the jumps. You can find it even – or, I should say, especially – at Sedgefield on a wet Wednesday in December. It makes those involved much easier to love.

Accessible trainers
This would have been a much harder argument to advance in the years when Martin Pipe dominated jump racing. The master of Pond House never knowingly disclosed his plans to the press or public until the entries were revealed, but he's retired and his son, David, who now holds the licence, is significantly more open with followers of the sport.

As a general rule, jumps trainers will consent to discuss their horses freely and at length with the media and, thereby, the public. The new champion, Paul Nicholls, sets a superb example, giving up a large part of his time to journalists, despite the pressures of running such a busy, high-profile stable. He does his best to map out clear plans for his horses and to give some idea of a pecking order. If one of his gets injured, he will not simply sit on the news until it leaks out through Betfair.

The younger generation of Flat trainers is also much more comfortable with the media than would have been the case in the past, but the example set for them by Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O'Brien is poor. Both are very reluctant interviewees, sparing with any enlightening information about their stars.

There is pressure on the major Flat trainers to clam up, applied by the thrice-accursed bloodstock industry. If there is even the slightest chance that your colt might end up as a stallion, then you daren't utter so much as a word against it for fear of harming its earning potential. You might think him lazy, quirky, a bit slow, but in your dealings with the outside world he will always be "really promising, full of potential and so much natural speed".

There are few turn-offs greater than the suspicion that you are being led up the garden path. Flat racing is far too content to leave its supporters feeling that way.

Familiar horses
The other major crime committed by the bloodstock industry against the sport from which it feeds is the constant robbing of young talent from the Flat. If a horse becomes a champion at the age of three, it has no future other than 20 years in the breeding shed. Fans have no sooner got used to the sight of him than he's gone forever. The turnover of top-class racers is baffling to newcomers, depressing to older hands.

"Wow, that Zarkava's a bit good, isn't she? The way she brushed those colts aside. What? Off to stud, you say? Never mind, here comes Sea The Stars, he's pretty quick too! What a pity he didn't get to race against her, though at least he'll get to mate with her, because now he's off to stud as well. Now here comes St Nicholas Abbey – wow! He looks really good. I wonder how he'd compare to Sea The Stars. What a pity …"

Comparing the champions of one generation with those of another is a pretty futile game, but it's the only one open to fans of the Flat, because there is almost no chance that a good horse will stay in training long enough to meet the next big thing.

How lucky, then, is jump racing to have stars whose stud value is nil, for reasons that may possibly seem a bit cruel to the newcomer.

Real competition
After the Derby, which comes early in a horse's career, Flat racing offers an impressive array of potential targets for a good horse. That's dandy if you're the owner or trainer, trying to find races that will suit your horse without exposing him to much risk of defeat – an enterprise in which you will be assisted by the trainers of other good horses, who will not want to race against you.

It is not nearly such good news if you want to see the best horses take each other on, assuming there is more than one good horse on show that year and that they come from different stables. They might as well be sorting out the good races between them: "I'll take the Irish Derby and the King George, you have the Eclipse and the Irish Champion. We'll make like we're both going for the Arc and get people all excited, but then you get a leg two days before and go for the Breeders' Cup instead."

If you're a good jumper, your target will be at the Cheltenham Festival and, if there's anything your trainer can do about it, you'll turn up there in March, ready to run for your life against all the other good horses in your category. Then, we'll find out who's best.

Fans of jump racing never have to die wondering.
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