Wednesday 20 September 2017

And they're off - Irish race fans gear up for a betting bonanza

Adela Zdenkova in the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham. Photo: Damien Eagers
Adela Zdenkova in the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham. Photo: Damien Eagers

Sean O'Grady

Over the next four days, Irish punters will wager well in excess of €125m on Cheltenham. For a large cohort of them, nothing beats the thrill of actually being there.

More than 10,000 Irish are estimated to have travelled to Prestbury for the event.

Spectators from this side of the Irish Sea have been keeping their fingers crossed that Ireland can match a record 14 wins at the 2016 races.

But not everyone was optimistic for Ireland's chances of pulling off another record win.

Champion trainer Willie Mullins has suffered a bout of bad luck with some of his horses - including Annie Power, who played a central role in the last three festivals - forced to pull out.

"They have no chance this year...England have too many favourites," said Mark Kavanagh from Dublin.

Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone and her friend Fiona Grant Picture: Damien Eagers
Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone and her friend Fiona Grant Picture: Damien Eagers

"Lots of Willie Mullins's horses have pulled out, they've gotten sick or injured."

Racing veteran Charles McGrath, from Drogheda, Co Louth, was similarly pessimistic about the Irish chances at the Prestbury Cup.

"I don't think the Irish will get half as many wins, but I'd say Willie Mullins will still be top trainer," he told the Irish Independent.

Regardless of who leaves the Cotswolds with the most wins under their belt, it's surely set to be an outstanding week for all involved.

"I've been coming to Cheltenham every year since 1992.

"Nothing compares. They call it the Olympics of racing and it really is.

"Every horse wants to win at Cheltenham," Mr McGrath said.

The bars and restaurants of Cheltenham town were humming with excitement for the week ahead last night as punters cut loose before today's kick off.

Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone and her friend Fiona Grant made their way to the Cotswolds at the last minute.

"I don't know how it transpired, we just decided we would take a little trip. I'm off anyway this week because parliament is closed," she said.

"I've been at loads and a lot of the time you're in high heels and you're clunking around and it's fashionable and that's really enjoyable, but here it's more down to earth and it's about the fun."

Teresa Allen and best friend Mary Jackman Cotter have been coming to the festival together for more than a decade. They make the journey to Prestbury Park every year with Teresa's daughter Louise and they have their fingers crossed the Irish can continue their winning streak this year.

"I've been coming since 1976, 40 years. I missed a couple of years but I was here when the greats won. I met Mary at the races in Galway in the champagne tent," Teresa, from Slane, Co Meath, said.

"We've been coming for 10 to 15 years. I wouldn't miss Cheltenham, it's fantastic. England welcomes us," Ms Cotter added.

Horse racing is a "passion" for graduate Louise (37), who hasn't missed a trip to the Cotswolds since her first visit 20 years ago.

"My favourite bit is when the roar goes up when the Supreme Novice takes off. That's one of my favourite races and I love the Champion Hurdle as well. There's three or four Grade One's so it will be brilliant."

Tomorrow will see a sartorial showdown in the stands as thousands of ladies compete for the title of Best Dressed and Louise is already feeling the pressure.

"It's very difficult to dress for the weather here because you're in between seasons.

"You don't know what it'll be like. Last year was freezing but this year could be good," she said.

Paddy Power estimated €125m will be wagered by Irish punters over the course of the festival.

Irish punters racing to Cheltenham

By air and by sea, the Irish are flocking to the UK for the four-day Cheltenham festival.

Only a small amount of rain is forecast, so revellers are looking forward to good weather and racing thrills at the event, which gets underway today.

Dubliner Keira Kennedy (37), from Stepaside, has been going to Cheltenham for the last few years and believes the luck of the Irish will prevail.

"I have a few friends who are involved in the horse racing industry and I think it's really where the Irish show themselves off to the best of their ability," she said.

"I'm never that lucky with the betting, I like to go for the fun and the social side of it.

"Ladies Day is Wednesday and I have a hat I'll keep for then," she said.

Eamon Heffernan (72), from Glenageary in Dublin, is at his 40th Cheltenham festival. "The Irish seem to be a bit weaker than previous years," he said. "But I'm sure they'll still get a double-digit number of winners."

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Eamon Heffernan

"Over the last four or five years they've done particularly well," he added.

"If you go by the experts it looks like the English might do better this year, but there's no reason why we can't come out on top again," said Meath siblings Karl and Zohra Smith.

Irish Independent

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