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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 18:15 GMT
Scandal fails to deter punters
By Sophie Brown
BBC Sport at Cheltenham

Punters celebrate a win at Cheltenham
Punters at Cheltenham are still happily placing their bets
Racing may be in crisis but you wouldn't know it at the Cheltenham Festival.

Buoyed by the glorious sunshine more usually associated with Royal Ascot, the 60,000 racegoers are revelling in the atmosphere of the world's greatest National Hunt meeting.

The depressing front-page headlines of the last 10 days appear to have been forgotten and money is changing hands down at the bookies as fast as ever - but does the happy facade hide doubts about the integrity of the sport?

Many racegoers seem to be unfazed by the allegations of race-fixing and general corrupt practices that are once again dogging the sport.

"Sensational headlines sell papers," John Dawson, a painter and decorator from Sussex, told BBC Sport.

"It's all hearsay and racing is an easy target because so many people think it is bent anyway. There is a bit of skullduggery going on in most sports.

"I've had no qualms about betting. Because I'm here, I'm not using the (betting) exchanges but if I was at home, I still would."

"Racing is definitely a lot cleaner than it was," says Mike Smith, who has been backing horses for more than 40 years.

"Nowadays with technology and such like, those wanting to cheat cannot get away with it as easily as in the old days when there were no televised races, with cameras from every angle.

"Every horse you see here (at Cheltenham) will be trying," he adds before admitting: "If they don't try here at the best meeting of the season, then they won't try anywhere.

"It's the smaller races I try to avoid as a punter. With so little prize money on offer, you never know if people are supplementing it by pulling a fast stroke somewhere along the line."

I think racing is in real trouble
Cheltenham racegoer
But not all racegoers are as sanguine about the latest allegations.

Muriel McDonald, who says she enjoys "a little flutter but only when I go racing", is alarmed by the recent negative headlines.

"My money goes on in good faith but this makes you think - and if horses aren't always trying, then it's not a level playing field," she said.

Her comments were echoed by Paul de Silva, a city broker attending his first Cheltenham Festival.

"I'm not a regular racegoer and I'm only here on corporate hospitality but I think racing is in real trouble," he said.

"All my mates who are into racing say that the latest scandals haven't revealed anything new, that things like giving your horse an easy race to lower its handicap are par for the course and everyone knows it.

"But that to me is not what sport is about. Fair enough, those within the sport accept that it goes on but if racing is to survive, it needs to attract new fans and they won't come in if they think the sport is corrupt.

"Racing is locked in its own little world and is not as important or as popular as it likes to think it is."





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