Fortunes of Irish riding on Mullins to set some new records
THE fortunes of the pilgrims paying homage at the racing Mecca of Cheltenham all rest on one man and his oh-so-famous string of horses.
That man's name was on the lips of the thousands of punters thronging through the airports, and overheard in the heaving Irish haunts of Cheltenham.
"The fortunes of the Irish punters will depend on how Willie Mullins does," summed-up racing-bound former Galway hurling manager John McIntyre, who was making the pilgrimage along with retired Mayo barrister Michael Needham.
"Willie Mullins has a lot of heavyweights running on the first day and if some of them oblige it could be a great week for the Irish. If it doesn't work out for Ireland's champion trainer, well, we'll be under pressure," he confessed.
Records that have stood since the 1930s might crumble today if Mullins's 40-strong string of horses deliver with a potential record-breaking super mare – Quevega – aiming to win the Mares' Hurdle for a sixth year in a row.
The last horse to win six races in a row was famous champion steeplechaser Golden Miller, more than 80 years ago.
According to the bar talk in the Irish enclave – O'Neills pub in the heart of Cheltenham – there was plenty of money resting on the Mullins-trained Hurricane Fly winning the Stan James Champion Hurdle today to become the must successful horse in the race since the famous Istabraq.
Liam Carey (66), along with Joseph McEntaggart and Gabriel Donnelly, from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, have been spotted having a sing-song or two in O'Neill's over the years.
"It is a question of how many winners will Willie have," they quipped. "It goes in swings and roundabouts," said Joseph.
"We're going nearly 20 years, it is time we were put out to grass," quipped Liam, as they told how they'd taken home a small ransom when the Dessie Hughes-trained Hardy Eustace romped home.
Yet, it takes a bookie to bring punters' dreams back down to earth.
"It is only a loan. We don't mind if they win at Cheltenham, there is a whole year to compensate," said Justin Carty, Ladbrokes' head of racecourse betting, as he expects more than £250m (€300m) to change hands. Whether those bookmakers are travelling home empty-handed will depend on Mullins and his top jockey Ruby Walsh, he too agreed.
"Vautour, Hurricane, Faugheen, Briar Hill – they could all win, there'll be no more bookies," he laughed.
With sunshine in the forecast, he admitted everyone was right to be excited about the festival.
Also in O'Neill's, former soccer star Niall Quinn told how Cheltenham was the "highlight of the year".
"I've been looking forward to it," he said with a smile. "We're here till the money comes in," he joked.
He revealed it was his son Mikey's "debut" at the festival.
There were hundreds travelling through Dublin Airport, with Ryanair adding extra flights and Aer Lingus reporting extra traffic.
More than 10,000 Irish are winging their way to the Cotswolds, as Newbridge Travel described sales as strong and on a par with last year.
"I found people who did day trips last year were doing a one-night package this year," a spokeswoman said.
Prices started at €525.