03/04/2003 12:00AM

There's nothing like this in America

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DUBLIN - The Cheltenham Festival begins on Tuesday, and the bookies are already chomping at the bit. It's the Breeders' Cup of jump racing, offering three straight days of top-quality hurdles and steeplechases at a lovely old course out in the English countryside, where the stretch run climbs uphill and sometimes leaves the horses as winded as boxers after 10 good rounds of punching.

For American fans, it's hard to fathom the British affection for National Hunt races. The rare chases we get at Saratoga are usually amateur affairs that make us groan and head directly to the bar. But in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the jumps provide the major action through the harsh winter months when the best flat tracks are closed because of the weather. The trainers and jockeys are pros, and they cut no corners in pursuit of a purse.

Cheltenham is a famous spa town, so it's no surprise that a gambler can take a bath there. Faced with large fields of up to 15 horses, you're forced to do your homework if you hope to cash a bet. That isn't easy, either, since you're denied such familiar stateside tools as Beyer Speed Figures. Instead, you have to rely on a comparative, vaguely literary approach that has little to do with statistics at all.

The past performance charts, such as they are, provide no running line for a race, for instance, and no fractional times - stamina being more important than speed in races that routinely cover two, three, and sometimes four miles. You learn only where a horse has finished and how the trackman thought he ran. Interpreting the commentary is a key skill in beating the jumps, in fact, and often demands the sort of textual analysis you hated in college.

As an example, take World Wide Web, a promising young hurdler. Tenth in his first race of the year at Doncaster, where he was "soon detached in last, never on terms," he traveled next to Wincanton and shortened up in trip. There he came in fifth and "was prominent, pushed along after second [hurdle], behind from four out." An attentive reader might expect further improvement, and that's what World Wide Web delivered, winning his next race at Sandown "driven out."

The weight a horse must carry is a terribly important factor in the jumps, since every victory results in a rise in the handicap. So, too, is a horse's liking for the course, the distance, and the going. But there are roughly 66 National Hunt courses in the UK and Ireland, and because they're all different in character - left- or right-handed, gently rolling or relatively flat - it's hard to measure a performance at Taunton, say, against one at Ascot.

As ever, the jockey matters, maybe more than on the flat. Tony McCoy, the current champ, wins about 25 percent of his races and is worth at least a length on any mount. Trainers also tip their hand via the percentages, shining at one track and not another. Paul Nicholls owns Chepstow, where his stock wins 29 percent of the time, while Nicky Henderson, at Wetherby, scores at a 29 percent rate. But even the most successful trainers can't control fate and must watch their horses make the sort of jumping mistakes that turn favorites into fallers.

Hard to look past Best Mate

For Henrietta Knight, a leading English trainer, watching her horses run a race is a stressful experience she often tries to avoid. Knight is a colorful person, who could have stepped from the pages of Dickens. She's known for her honesty, her love of horses, and her fur hat, and she has the favorite for the big race at Cheltenham, the Gold Cup chase, a grueling test of stamina that's always contested at a strong pace over a distance of about 3 1/4 miles.

Best Mate, Knight's entry, is an 8-year-old gelding, who took the race last year and can be counted on to stay forever, regardless of conditions. The bookies have priced him down as low as 11-8, extraordinary for the Gold Cup. But there's a good reason for it, since Best Mate has won 10 of his 15 starts and finished second in the others. Still, Knight may sit out the race in her car, as she has done before, or possibly steal a glimpse of it on TV, if she's feeling brave.

The chief threat to Best Mate is an Irish invader, Beef or Salmon, hovering at 7-2. Though less experienced, Beef or Salmon has won his last four races. The knock against him is that he has never competed in England, only in Ireland, where the ground tends to be heavy. The ground at Cheltenham will probably be good to good/soft, however, and the fences will be stiffer and more challenging than the horse has ever encountered.

That won't affect the market support of Beef or Salmon. At every Festival, a huge contingent of punters from locales such as Dublin and Tipperary makes their presence felt in the betting ring. The punters seem to regard the occasion as a chance to redress ancient colonial grievances, and they toss money around in support of Irish horses with an energy bordering on the baroque.

The McManus factor

No Irish gambler is as feared and respected as the legendary J.P. McManus, a corporate tyro with holdings in the Caribbean who thrives on maximum risk. Bookies have been known to run in the opposite direction at McManus's approach, since his bets can rise into the tens of thousands. Though McManus plays it close to the vest, the news of his wagers inevitably leaks and causes a wild imbalance in the ring as his Irish compatriots rush to embrace it.

The Irish believe in tips, and the most valuable at Cheltenham is any "inside information" on the antepost bets McManus is rumored to have made. Bookies will accept antepost bets months in advance of the Festival, often at long odds that dry up as horses establish some form during the season. Vincent O'Brien, the greatest Irish trainer, used to supplement his income substantially by wagering on his horses before their talents were revealed to the general public, always being sure to include a small parlay on behalf of his parish priest.

At any rate, with a week to go, Cheltenham Fever is building. About 40,000 will pack the racecourse each day, drowning themselves in enough champagne to soothe the inevitable setbacks. The rest of us will be glued to the television at home - the four most important races are shown live every afternoon - or at our local betting shop, where the diehards plunge on "virtual racing," computer-generated, with random results, adding yet another weapon to the bookies' woeful arsenal.

Bill Barich is the author of "Laughing in the Hills," a 1980 book about his experiences at a Golden Gate Fields spring meeting. He now lives in Dublin.