In thrall to the patriot game
It's like kids counting the days until Christmas. You can't miss the buzz. People you meet in the street say, "Cheltenham coming up next week," with a smile on their faces, the man in the village shop is sharing his tips and talking about the perfect Lucky 15, the guy they call King Of The Punters gives you two definite decently-priced winners for the first day and says, "I can do no more for you right now." Someone hears something from someone else who knows someone who definitely, definitely no word of a lie knows something.
In the words of West Side Story, "The air is humming and something great is coming". Is there any more pleasurable period of anticipation in Irish sport than the few days before the runners in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle take off at 1.30 on Tuesday afternoon? We may await the beginning of the hurling and football championships with similar fervour but they don't exactly start with a bang. The first race at Cheltenham pitches you right into the middle of the action and there's no let-up till Friday evening. After all the anticipation, the hunches, the predictions and the dreams, it's all finished inside four days. And then you can start thinking about next year.
Perhaps it's slightly odd that the greatest of all Irish sporting festivals doesn't even take place in this country. Yet even the English acknowledge that it's the Irish involvement which makes Cheltenham special. This week, the festival will be just another English sporting story but it will be the biggest Irish story, one of the biggest of our year. It matters more to us than it does to them.
Patriotism has a lot to do with this. The English, by and large, don't regard a victory at Cheltenham as a national sporting triumph. We do. And two years ago when Irish trained horses racked up those record 13 victories, it was like a fantasy come true, the ultimate culmination of a glorious tradition, particularly on that never-to-be-forgotten Wednesday when we won six out of the seven races and for a dizzying moment it seemed like we were destined never to lose another race.
Last year on the other hand was a pretty stark return to reality, the five Irish winners our poorest return since 2007. You actually had to go all the way back to the four wins of 2004 for a worse result. Because while 2011 marked the apogee of Irish fortunes at Cheltenham, there have been other vintage years of late, the ten winners in 2006 and the nine winners the year before that in particular.
And it's this sustained level of excellence which in part accounts for the enduring fascination Cheltenham holds for the Irish. Watching it, a sometimes insecure nation can witness something we're undeniably good at. Even last year, while a poor year for Irish trainers, was as always a great year for Irish jockeys and Irish-bred horses. If Cheltenham didn't exist, it would have been necessary to invent some other festival to showcase the awesome strength of Irish National Hunt racing.
Cheltenham also casts a spell on us because it's such a reliable source of drama. From Arkle's battles with Mill House to the unpredictable but charismatic Captain Christy storming past The Dikler on the run-in in the 1974 Gold Cup, from Monksfield toughing it out against Sea Pigeon in the 1979 Champion Hurdle to Dawn Run winning the 1986 Gold Cup after looking well beaten, from Golden Cygnet, the Duncan Edwards of horse racing, winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle by 15 lengths in 1979 to Istabraq's Champion Hurdle hat-trick, from Moscow Flyer coming back to regain the Champion Chase in 2005, all the way back to the days when the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle three-in-a-row for Cottage Rake and Hatton's Grace announced the arrival of a young trainer called Vincent O'Brien, it has provided some of the great moments in Irish sport.
And it also appeals to a certain quality in the national character which might best be described as The Inner Rogue. For the duration of proceedings, a carnival atmosphere will prevail at both the course and in the bookies' shops, pubs and even homes where the action is being tracked. There may not be quite the same spirit of abandon as there was during the Tiger years when you didn't have to worry as much about where the next few bob was going to come from. But all the same, many bets will be placed which would have remained unplaced and many pints drunk which would have remained undrunk had it not been for the goings-on in the Cotswolds.
Our vociferous crew of born-again moralists will no doubt decry this sort of thing. And in many ways Cheltenham and everything that surrounds it is everything that they feel we should have, y'know, gone past and got away from, y'know, at this stage. Perhaps in this new era we should approach Cheltenham in a more appropriate manner, betting with matchsticks and old pennies perhaps and toasting our successes with Ballygowan and a Ryvita cracker topped with a little low-fat spread.
A couple of years ago the killjoy brigade even suggested that In These Recessionary Times it behoved the Irish winners at the festival to tone down the celebration in recognition of the economic crisis. But let's be realistic here. Cheltenham is high spirits time. Bookies whose patrons spend most of the year betting on which of the tumbleweeds blowing across the floor will reach the counter first are suddenly transformed into the busiest premises in town. And just as we all become athletics experts during the Olympics, everyone suddenly fancies themselves as a punter. Guys who think the Racing Post is a newspaper for the Irish community in London suddenly discourse on form and tips as though they were the reincarnation of Jimmy The Greek.
It's fun. And if you train, ride, own, own a share in or have a bet on a winner this week you're still entitled to party like it's 2006. There's enough austerity in this country without acknowledging its existence at one of the most joyous of Irish sporting occasions. Cheltenham, like all the best sporting events, exists at a remove from the real world. It is an antidote to more mundane worries. And just as most people who drink don't end up chugging whiskey for breakfast, most of the people who have a few bets this week aren't going to end up on the side of the road because of it.
There is much to look forward to. You'd have thought that the departure of Kauto Star might have detracted from the Gold Cup. Instead it's the most intriguing contest in years with at least half a dozen horses in with a genuine chance. Willie Mullins' Sir Des Champs has a great shot at becoming the first Irish winner since War Of Attrition in 2006 but he has serious rivals in Nicky Henderson's Bobs Worth and Paul Nicholls' Silviniaco Conti. Henderson also saddles 2011 winner Long Run while if First Lieutenant, trained by Mouse Morris who also trained War Of Attrition, foregoes the Ryanair Chase he might have the best chance of all. And then there is heavily-backed outsider Captain Chris. It should be a corker.
And so should the Champion Hurdle. When Hurricane Fly won for Willie Mullins two years ago, a period of Istabraq-style dominance looked likely. But the odds-on favourite was beaten into third last year and though Hurricane Fly starts favourite again this year, the 2012 winner Rock On Ruby is now the one bidding to make it two in a row. Zarkandar, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Wexford's Daryl Jacob, will put it up to both of them.
While many of the races will come down to battles between the likes of Mullins, Henderson, Nicholls and David Pipe, another side of the festival will be evident on the final day when Salsify bids to retain his Foxhunters Chase title. Salsify is trained by Rodger Sweeney in the
East Cork village of Castlelyons, owned by Rodger's wife Joan and ridden by their son, amateur jockey Colman. Stories like theirs are also
part of the rich tapestry of Cheltenham. Who'll ever forget the heartwarming Cheltenham adventures of Oliver Brady? And there will be other lesser known Irish trainers, the likes of Wexford's Liz Doyle and Limerick's Charles Byrnes, travelling in hope this week.
The Supreme Novices' Hurdle will as ever get things off to a cracking start with many punters perhaps torn between profit and patriotism. Plenty will have plumped for short-odds favourite My Tent Or Yours to get things off to a flying start but second favourite Jezki will be flying the flag for Jessica Harrington and Ireland. A My Tent Or Yours win could be a harbinger of a profitable first day; there are four hot favourites on Tuesday who could give punters breathing space for the rest of the week. But a Jezki victory might begin a great week for the Irish.
If all else fails, you can always bet on Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase. He'll be about five to one on but at least you can feel like a winner for a little while. Quevega will also be odds-on as she bids for a remarkable five-in-a-row in the Mares Hurdle.
Irish trainers will surely surpass last year's total. Willie Mullins has so many quality runners he could do better than five winners on his own. And then there's Dessie Hughes's hotly fancied Our Conor in the Triumph Hurdle, Tony Martin's Golantilla in the Champion Bumper and Enda Bolger's Arabella Boy in the Cross Country Chase.
And if the camera does settle on a bunch of jovial Irishmen throwing hats into the air and leaping around in joy, the professionally po-faced should keep their comments about 'Paddywhackery' to themselves. There's nothing Stage Irish about the spectacle. It's just Irish, natural, unaffected Irish. Because losing the head about Cheltenham is part of what we are. It always has been and it always will be.
Two days to go. And counting.