Bookies Eagerly Await Cheltenham 2002

12 March 2002

Bookmakers are relishing the prospect of a £150 million windfall from the 2002 Cheltenham Festival.

The industry was hard hit by the cancellation of the three-day meeting last year because of foot-and-mouth disease.

With dozens of other fixtures also called off, bookies were forced to introduce new ideas in an effort to maintain turnover in shops.

Racing was broadcast from far-flung destinations, such as Italy, South Africa and Dubai, while extra lottery-style numbers games were brought in.

But there is no need for such gimmicks this year as punters open their wallets for surely racing's most eagerly-awaited National Hunt Festival.

A wide-open Cheltenham Gold Cup, with at least six strong contenders, has helped keep the ante-post market buzzing.

And the prospect of triple champion hurdler Istabraq going for a record fourth win in the race, and a fifth triumph at the Festival, merely whets the appetite further.

Simon Clare, spokesman for Coral, is quick to acknowledge the meeting's importance.

"The festival is unique and I think this year there is a real buzz and sense of anticipation," he said.

"The fact we lost it last year was a massive blow to bookmakers and the whole of racing."

One punter already has £33,000 riding on an Istabraq victory from a bet he struck four years ago.

He wagered £500 with Coral on the Irish horse at a price of 66-1 that he would go on to win a record four champion hurdles.

If last year's festival had gone ahead, Istabraq may well have started the 1-3 odds-on favorite.

But in the early part of 2002, he drifted out to 9-4.

Despite this, Clare cautions against suggestions that the 10-year-old may not start as the market leader.

"If he turns up at Cheltenham with four legs and 20,000 Irish people in the crowd, he will go off favorite," Clare said.

"He's a horse that captures the imagination. He's the star."

Fears that the horse does not retain his ability of old resurfaced after an unconvincing win on his comeback in late December 2001.

That came on top of two crashing falls in his previous three races.

David Hood, William Hill's PR chief, said: "He's obviously slightly fragile, he's had a couple of falls and always been a bit temperamental."

But he added: "To my mind, even Istabraq on a 90 percent day is too good for the majority, and possibly all, the other hurdlers."