In search of the festival on the perpetual staircase
Robin Gibson wades through the digital swamp
The long start of the jumps season these days is like one of those dead websites. Set up ages ago with enthusiasm, it hangs aimlessly with just the occasional flicker. You keep going back to see if anyone has logged on and populated it, but until March it's moribund.
Then Jumps 2.0 is launched and it's Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown. It's a mini-season with a hot micro-climate. And with it comes a storm of information, not all useful, biting incessantly at the punter's brain, like the bitter wind in Canary Wharf that blows stinging Topic wrappers into your face.
When I was a lad you had to go to the library to find out anything, and that closed at about seven. The front pages had nothing but classified ads for corsets and charabanc trips and there were three TV channels, all rubbish. We were ill-informed, if informed at all.
It's impossible now to be ill-informed about the festival. But is most of it any use?
1. Waffle. Thinly disguised corporate plugging
Look at the Met Office. Okay, we need their forecasts, but they've also got a page devoted to the meeting. This certainly helps their SEO. I found it by searching for the festival. Sample info: rain will make grass grow; ideally, it will be nice and sunny. Conclusion: come back on the Monday night.
TripAdvisor is plugging the festival as the top event in Cheltenham, even though the racecourse (latest review: “Not like it used to be”, 23/02/2017) is only fifth and the festival 38th of 58 things to do in Cheltenham in the TA rankings! Good grief.
The Met Office and TripAdvisor are plugging the festival because of value in association. As the festival approaches, your search is clogged by glory-hunting corporate entities.
Mind you, the top result on Google for 'Cheltenham Festival' is the Cheltenham jazz festival anyway. That's because it's an ad. And you have to suspect the flagging of ads on Google, with the tiny 'Ad' icon, makes as much impression on the consumer as the quote marks on court headlines – Man 'butchered neighbour and fed remains to pet terrapins', when there's every chance he never did.
On Bing, there are also ads at the top – with an even tinier 'Ad' warning. But at least they're for the real festival. Which moves us on to . . .
2. Guff. Thinly disguised bookie affiliates
The top result on Bing on Thursday was watchonlinehorseracing.co.uk, the sort of digital turd on the superhighway that makes you want to take the first exit.
It's pointless. Just a kind of tempting headline – but tempting only for desperate cheapskates because who, apart from the media rights holders, expects to be able to watchonlinehorseracing for free?
It drags you into a site that points you to online bookie sites where you can, you guessed it, place a bet to view. It's even got a reviews section (with no reviews) and a blog with tips, by 'Bob Worth', for April 23 last year.
watchonlinehorseracing.co.uk is only here by way of an example. There are worse and many. Casual/annual punters can get clogged in the mud and anyone who traverses these sites (or apps – there are plenty of those too) will feel like they've been trudging round the Penrose steps (aka the never-ending staircase). The Penrose, impossible in the three traditional dimensions, is infinitely achievable in cyberspace.
3. Ticket resale. Thinly disguised crass profiteering
That's the polite version. Sorry to bore you to death, but if it's Cheltenham the touts are out and top of the hitlist (searchwise) is Viagogo. On Thursday you could buy two Club tickets for Tuesday direct from Cheltenham for £176.50, including everything. Or you could go on to Viagogo. They'll get you the same, but for £269.55.
And that's only Tuesday! Apparently the latest furore, over resale of tickets for a charity event, has brought up (again) the prospect of the DCMS or ministers 'cracking down' on the egregious sites. But don't hold on to your stubs.
And if you fancy a Tuesday ticket for less than face value, try peerless peer-to-peer site Twickets. There were four on there for £75 each.
4. Decent stuff. Undisguised useful info
Under the guff, waffle and profiteering, industrious seekers can discover useful info about Cheltenham. There are plenty of good blogs and podcasts in the run-up and a lot of opinion and ante-post advice. And much is rendered obsolete by events, dear boy, as the day nears.
One excellent resource that tries to carve a solid block of Gradgrindian fact and bears repeated mention is Gaultstats. This historically messy but heavily interesting pack of trends and stats has been designed for the first time, and is responsive, which means you can narrow down the still-wide measure – essential for olders with failing iSight.
The result is that the thousands of words and stats on every race are now relatively streamlined and more readable. As previous viewers know, it's thorough to the point of exhaustion – in a good way – and packed with more nuggets than a KFC warehouse in a chicken glut. The dry wit is that of the stoical punter and the quiz would test John Randall. Well, probably not. It tested me.
Like lots of stuff, Gaultstats is free, but users are asked to donate to a charity. Last year the site raised £1,600 for Marie Curie. This year the Samaritans are the beneficiaries.
Review: ITV Racing app
For Mobile. Looks like that'll have to be an iOS device at the moment.
First impressions Green with a flash of orange; like a vibrant MC Yeeehaaa on a verdant racecourse backdrop. Minimal.
What they say "The ITV7 is sure to evoke fond memories – and we’re sure it will become a modern-day classic in its digital format."
What punters say "@itvracing can we have the new itv racing app for android phones as well please" (jean evans)
What's good The ITV7 is on it. You can't argue with that. I've had one winner, then three, so it's a matter of time. Like the best competitions, simple to enter. And free. Some news.
What's bad The 'Latest' section has trouble connecting – or is that me? Basic racecards, but not betting – a link to sponsor William Hill. Minimalism leads to short dwell time.
Marks 3/5. Really an ITV7 app. Fine, no point diluting the essence.
Twitter: @surfnturfRP or email firstname.lastname@example.org