03/07/2003 12:00AM

Letters to the Editor

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Steeplechase racing in States no trifling affair

Bill Barich was right, there is "nothing" like the Cheltenham Festival in America ("Nothing like it in America," March 6). Name an American horse racing event that attracts 150,000 fans over three days in the middle of the week. You can't. I can't. And neither can Barich.

He knows Cheltenham, recognizes the phenomenon, and is rightly impressed by it. He was wrong, however, when he tried to compare the festival to American steeplechase racing. In Barich's view, the U.S. jump races he sees at Saratoga "are usually amateur affairs that make us groan and head directly to the bar." In the same paragraph, Barich called the trainers and jockeys involved in English steeplechasing pros who "cut no corners in pursuit of a purse."

So Jonathan Sheppard, Tom Voss, and Janet Elliot aren't professionals? And neither are Blythe Miller, Gus Brown, and David Bentley? I would pay money to see anyone try to make that point in front of any of the six trainers and jockeys.

Just because American steeplechasing is small doesn't mean it's a joke. Hundreds of owners, trainers, jockeys, and Thoroughbred horses compete for $5 million in total purses every year. Seven U.S. racetracks will host jump races in 2003. Thirty-six race meets in 11 states will attract a million spectators.

Oh, there are amateur races - the Maryland Hunt Cup, which has produced two winners of England's famed Grand National, for one - but the jumping side of American Thoroughbred racing is as professional as the flat side.

And everyone isn't going to the bar. On March 29 at Camden, S.C., 70,000 people will attend the Carolina Cup steeplechase races. There's nothing else like that in America either. At Churchill Downs last year, a steeplechase race handled $910,000 in bets - on a Thursday.

Barich missed another point. America is going to the Festival - again. Last year, Bruce Miller (a professional steeplechase trainer) ran two horses at Cheltenham. His daughter Blythe (a professional steeplechase jockey) rode them. In the past, such American steeplechase luminaries as Flatterer, Soothsayer, Inkslinger, and Fort Devon have competed at the Festival.

This year, American steeplechase owner Sonny Via's colors will be at Cheltenham. Via recently spent 150,000 pounds on Saitensohn, a German-bred horse who is 3 for 3 over hurdles in England. The horse runs in Wednesday's Royal and SunAlliance novice hurdle before joining Via's U.S. string with trainer Jack Fisher. Topping it off, two-time American champion jockey Brown (who has been riding in England for a month) has the mount for leading English trainer Jonjo O'Neill.

Nothing amateur about that.

Joe Clancy, editor and publisher Steeplechase Times

Cheltenham piece understated the festivities

After reading the excellent March 6 article about Cheltenham by Bill Barich, I would like to offer a couple of small corrections and to add some interesting facts.

"Faced with large fields, up to 15 horses" isn't quite accurate. Fifteen runners is a short field at Cheltenham. The average is over 20 runners per race and two races in 2002 had 28 runners each.

Furthermore, to say that 40,000 racegoers will pack the race course each day is an understatement. There will be 50,000 on Tuesday and it is already sold out for 60,000 on Wednesday and 60,000 on Thursday. As well as four races per day broadcast live on national television, all races are also on satellite television into millions of homes and direct in 9,000 offtrack betting parlors.

While it's true we in the United States are well served by Daily Racing Form's Beyer Speed Figures, to say that the racegoers at Cheltenham are denied speed figures and have only vague literary information is inaccurate.

For speed ratings, the bettor can choose among Timeform, Raceform, Postmark, Topspeed, and The Official Jockey Club Rating. Timeform, Raceform, and the Racing Post provide their readers with outstanding, informed opinion. Precise paddock descriptions, pertinent going requirements, important pedigree analysis, instances of temperament as well as other racing characteristics are all closely detailed, as, of course, is an accurate interpretation of race times/speed figures.

There is over $3 million worth of purse money at the Festival, and there is more money bet in England and Ireland on the Cheltenham Gold Cup than there is in all of America in all eight Breeders' Cup races combined. The betting is so intense that in one race in 2002 the favorite went off at 9-1.

The Irish arrive in droves and add much to the electric atmosphere, and they bet like real men. The so-called World Cup of Steeplechasing provides spectacular and exciting racing, enhanced by very brave and skilled jockeys. Many of the horses are 8 and 9 years old, and yet they still battle with admirable courage and absolutely no medication (no Bute) for seven days before a race.

When I last visited the meeting three years ago, I took my American guest to the unsaddling enclosure. He was pleasantly surprised by the huge reception given to one particular horse, to which my reply was, "That's only the fourth horse, wait until the winner comes in."

Cheltenham is truly a memorable event for all who attend and that is why so many make a pilgrimage to the Festival every year.

Michael W. Dickinson
North East, Md.

Starting gate crew taking undue disciplinary heat

I worked on the starting gate for 20 years, and I am angry about the decision that Golden Gate stewards made in regard to several assistant starters supposedly abusing horses ("Starters fined for injuring horses," Jan. 16).

I have worked with some of those trainers who accused these assistant starters of not doing their jobs. These trainers should know by now that the horses they train can sometimes be difficult when they are being introduced to or schooled in the starting gate.

Stewards who include former jockeys should especially be aware of the danger in the starting gate. If these stewards are finding that the assistants are not doing their jobs properly, maybe they should look a little bit closer at the trainers and what they are doing, or not doing, to prepare these horses properly. Some type of injury probably would happen every day without the assistant starters.

James Morgan
Pleasanton, Calif.

Racing secretary weighs in on the Beyer scale

Andrew Beyer's March 2 proposal of a mandatory highweight of 126 pounds in all handicaps ("Weight limit can salvage handicaps") has the support of Beulah Park.

This used to be the practice at New York Racing Association tracks for all handicap stakes into the 1980's. Beulah Park also supports the naming of Andrew Beyer as the czar of all racing, as long as he does it on a voluntary basis so he is beholden to no larger entity other than his own noble handicapping prowess.

I have sent copies of this letter to friends and former bosses and co-workers at Arlington Park, Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita. C'mon, folks, let's all get on the Beyer bandwagon.

Edward Vomacka, racing secretary
Beulah Park