Wednesday 28 June 2017

Punters' pain over €40m hit

Johnny Ward

T HERE is little escaping what a calamity Cheltenham was for most punters. Dunguib, Master Minded and Kauto Star were near-certainties for many and the best they could manage between them was third place.

It felt like the atmosphere there, despite the healthy attendance figures, was somewhat subdued and that could have something to do with Dunguib's deflating defeat in the very first race. For many Irishmen, there was nothing that could get them buzzing after that -- with the possible exception of mindless drinking, the net result of which was further deflation.

The bookies had ample occasion to toast their incessant fortune. William Hill estimate that bookmakers based in Ireland won over €40m at this year's Festival, spokesman Tony Kenny admitting: "The icing on the cake for us was getting Kauto Star beaten in the Gold Cup. It was the best Cheltenham that we've ever had!"

Paddy Power's penchant for publicity, despite the cost -- or indeed because of it -- was on display again. So was their gigantic Hollywood-esque advertisement on Cleeve Hill, visible to virtually all punters who visited the track, though they have opted to take it down following the results of a public poll.

Their spokesman of the same name downplayed Cheltenham's significance in the context of yearly profits. "Horse racing just doesn't account for the same percentage of bets and Cheltenham is not make or break as it was in the past."

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It broke plenty of gamblers and Dunguib's reverse was probably the main issue for many to contemplate. Jockey error? Bad tactics? Rotten luck? When John McCririck got in on the act and criticised jockey Brian O'Connell, the latter's weighing room colleagues were aghast. Davy Russell, despite just having ridden his only winner of the week, saw fit to use the occasion to slate Channel 4's outspoken pundit.

Russell's tirade reflected the opinion of his colleagues, one of whom told the Sunday Independent: "When there are people sitting at home who probably don't have a clue, and you have McCririck saying what he did, they'll think he knows what he's talking about. McCririck talks about odds and prices; bar that, he hasn't a clue.

"I think if [Dunguib's connections] were to go back again, the instructions would probably be different: they were half-treating him as though he was a certainty. I haven't met one jockey who blamed Brian, but the people I did meet who blamed him are all talking through their pockets.

"Davy was 100 per cent right and Brian is being criticised because he got beaten. If Ruby Walsh had ridden him in the same way, there wouldn't be a word about it."

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Philip Fenton has lost no faith in the horse, but he is surely wondering what would happen if the race were re-run tomorrow. The trainer, whose online blog leading up to the Festival emphasised how excited it was to be training such a red-hot favourite, is a little more taciturn now.

He has watched the video of the race and can only reiterate what his initial impressions were: "It didn't go according to plan but that's life; we didn't get the rub of the green. He didn't get the run of the race. I never said to Brian to go down the inside or the outside: that was his decision."

McCririck, says Fenton, "wouldn't understand other than the result . . . He seems to have no mercy on anybody."

But punters, it seems, bought into the criticism. Fenton added: "I tell you what -- I'm sure fellas could be engulfed in what people have said but you have to make up your own mind in these situations. You have to analyse it yourself, regardless of what people say."

Dunguib will now head for Punchestown, but could -- despite this reverse against novices -- take on the best senior hurdlers there. His trainer will see how the races available to him are shaping up closer to that Festival.

Fenton added that it was not impossible that Dunguib would tackle fences at some stage. Regardless, O'Connell will keep the ride at Punchestown.

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Quite a few of the beaten men of Cheltenham 2010 -- those who are not exercising an indefinite prohibition on gambling -- will relish the return of the Flat today. With The Curragh's feature Irish Lincolnshire as puzzling as many of the results over the past week, it might be better to concentrate on the Park Express Stakes.

Pollen, which won the Lincoln 12 months ago, is accordingly tempting -- and she is likely to be a big price. Aidan O'Brien has ten runners on the card and his string, even so early in the campaign, may be relatively forward.

Behind, in contrast, was what the past week was mainly about. One was reminded of gambling's occasional tendency to leave you thoroughly demoralised. In Beckett's words, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Sunday Independent

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