03/17/2006 12:00AM

Report tragedy along with triumph


ARCADIA, Calif. - A tip of the Irish topper to TVG for providing a full dose of the Cheltenham Festival from the English countryside this week.

For a relative novice to the game, the effect of watching the 18 races had an accruing effect. At first, the events appear to be little more than loosely organized riots, sometimes involving as many as 24 horses and riders strung out and tumbling over forbidding, hilly terrain laced with a maze of white fences. After awhile, though, things begin to make more sense - kind of like opera - and the viewer finally arrives at a point of true appreciation.

For starters, there is no question that the best of the jump riders must be among the fittest, most daring athletes in the world. Having once been introduced to perennial champion Tony McCoy, this reporter is convinced that only a first-class welterweight boxer could be a match in terms of strength, agility, and fitness, not to mention the ability to take a punch, or a fall.

Then there are the horses, the true heroes of the spectacle. Far from the heavy-headed beasts of jumping legend, some of the Cheltenham stars were almost sleek and refined, able to launch great, soaring leaps over the daunting steeplechase barriers and rip across the shorter jumps of the hurdles at true racehorse speed. When an announcer describes a leader as "jumping big," there is no question as to what he means.

The races themselves were well covered through a small army of cameras. Unfortunately, the rest of the pictures provided by TVG were bare-bones, pulled down from a signal being generated by a South African company. If ever a spectacle required in-depth coverage from the scene, it's the Cheltenham Festival.

As a result, we had to take former jump rider Jimmy Duggan's word as part of the TVG studio team that the roar of the Cheltenham crowd was like no other likely to be heard, and that the reception of the throng to every bold winner was unique in all of racing. He's ridden there, so he knows.

And we were inclined to believe former trainer and full-time Irishman Frank Lyons of TVG when he described the festival as a delirious convocation of racing nations, deferring to his experience as an innocent lad when caught up in the annual migration of Cheltenham pilgrims from Dublin across the Irish Sea.

Thankfully, there was at least an audio hook-up from the TVG set to Sean Clancy of the Steeplechase Times, embedded deep in the festival crowd and apparently loving every minute.

Clancy provides the perfect set of eyes and ears for an American audience. A former jump rider himself, as well as a respected journalist, Clancy is a veteran of enough Cheltenhams to keenly gauge the rhythm of the crowd and the subtleties of all the action. But he could do only so much reporting with the few opportunities he was given, and it was in the reporting of the event that TVG came up short.

What TVG's viewers never learned - either from the images, the racecallers, or the in-studio talking heads - was that Cheltenham 2006 will go down as one of the bloodiest in the modern history of the festival.

Eight horses lost their lives at Cheltenham this week, six of them alone from injuries sustained during the Thursday program. So great was the outcry in Britain that an animal rights group called upon Prince Charles and his wife to change their plans and boycott Friday's final day of the festival (they attended anyway), while the English Jockey Club promised an investigation.

This information was broadly available Friday morning when TVG began its coverage. Nothing about Bloody Thursday, however, was mentioned by Lyons, Duggan, or host Todd Schrupp, who is usually keenly attuned to ontrack injuries.

"They discussed it before the show and made a decision not to address it," said Tony Allevato, TVG's executive producer. "If I'd been involved, I think that at least out of respect to the horses, we should have said something. That's part of the story, and it needs to be told."

In Duggan's case, he was loath to highlight news that could have been widely misinterpreted.

"My heart was so heavy last night, thinking about those poor people going home that had gone there with such hopes and aspirations," Duggan said. "It's no different to those people who care for the horses at Santa Anita or Belmont.

"And we all know casualties in sport happen," he said. "But when you're introducing people to a new sport as wonderful as steeplechasing, you'll see fallers all the time. So it may be unfair to highlight mortality rate when the great majority of fallers get back up and go home safe and sound."

Fair enough. But the TVG audience is made up primarily of consenting adults, racing fans who have come to terms with the fact that horses can die in the course of providing exciting sport and gambling opportunities. No one is asking for grisly details or images, merely context, accuracy, and compassion. Duggan is a noble ambassador of his sport, and TVG's viewers should be grateful for the gift of a truly thrilling event. Next time, though, trust them with the whole story.