James Lawton: Is Cheltenham worth the risk? Horses for courses
When Sir Peter O'Sullevan arrives at Cheltenham this week, having at the age of 93 driven down briskly from his flat in Chelsea, there is a very good chance he will be confronted by something rather less than he would desire.
It will be someone carrying a placard in the shape of a tombstone and bearing the name of one of the 32 horses who have died at the course over the last 10 years.
This will not be a meeting of minds. Sir Peter, one of the most relentlessly courteous men on earth, is unlikely to engage in any ferocious public debate but his defence of the greatest jump meeting of them all is no less intense or resolute for this.
When you outline the case of Animal Aid's horse racing consultant Dene Stansail one of O'Sullevan's deepest regrets is that his beloved Attivo, winner of the 1974 Triumph Hurdle is no longer able to join in the conversation.
“I know what he would say,” O'Sullevan declares. “He would say, ‘for heavens sake, don't stop me racing’.”
Such a viewpoint is unlikely to deflect the protests which will be expressed by 32 ‘tombstone' bearers and rotating eulogies for the fallen thoroughbreds.
Animal Aid announce: “We will be at Britain's most notorious death trap for racehorses to remind punters of the horses who have died at Cheltenham over the past decade. Sadly, horses are continuing to die in large numbers around the country.
“The British Horseracing Authority refuses to name or keep public count of these horses, so Animal Aid has taken on the role of bringing the truth to the public's attention. We look forward to the day that events such as the Cheltenham Festival, which put profits before animals' lives, are a thing of the past.”
O'Sullevan's point is that the most reluctant participants in the new animal Utopia would be characters like Attivo whose relish for running and jumping at this time of year in the valley in the West Country bring an edge to life, a recurring reason to marvel at the courage and nerve of both horses and men, that is as deeply thrilling as it is unique.
Nor is this self-evident reality compromised by the ambivalence which is bound to come to even the most gung-ho enthusiast whenever they have to put the screens around a stricken horse and call for the vet.
Where O'Sullevan (pictured) separates himself from protesters most emphatically is in their failure to understand the nature of the thoroughbred — and what he considers a hopelessly arbitrary set of priorities.
It happens, for example, that over the last decade or so the former Voice of Racing has sent a steady stream of financial support to animal welfare through his Charitable Trust.
Among the six principal beneficiaries is Compassion in World Farming, which says: “Sir Peter's donations have been a real life saver, helping to jump start the international campaign to halt the global growth of factory farming and to end the massive trade in long distance transport of farm animals.”
O'Sullevan says: “There is no doubt we must stop abusing animals in the way we do. I feel the way we human beings treat animals is comprehensively unacceptable in every conceivable way. The way we farm them is becoming more and more unacceptable.”
He says that the thoroughbred racehorse is by some distance the aristocrat of the animal world and whenever the issue of whether he should race and jump or not is raised always his thoughts go back to Attivo.
“When he was racing,” O'Sullevan recalls, “Attivo was an absolute joy to be around. I would drive to see him at every opportunity and I was always filled with the greatest anticipation. You couldn't image a creature more alive and enjoying his life so much.
“Then he stopped racing and I put him out to his Elysian field, his great reward, and you know he became the most miserable b****r in the world. Every time he looked at me there seemed to be reproach in his eyes. It was as though he was saying, ‘What have I done? Why are you punishing me?’”
“Animal welfare is a huge issue and I warm to all those who care about it,” he adds. “But, no, I don't believe we have a problem of cruelty or neglect at Cheltenham. There are accidents, of course, and every one of them is regretted but where would we be if everything, however fine, was scrapped because there was an element of risk?”
It is a point he will not address directly to the men and women carrying the tombstone placards this week because there are some arguments you can never win — even with the help of a debater as formidable as his old mate Attivo.