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Punters head for Mecca to avoid gloom

The recession won't quell the enthusiasm of Irish racegoers, Cheltenham veteran John McEntee claims

In Cheltenham's fabled Club Enclosure on Tues-day, there won't be as many Irish priests and politicians as the glory days of old. But it is an odds-on bet that this year's National Hunt Festival will still be a Mecca for thousands of Irish punters, economic gloom or not.

This will be my 34th annual pilgrimage to the world's greatest carnival of steeplechasing. I won't be ambushing the successor to race-loving finance minister Charlie McCreevy and asking why he wasn't poring over his Budget abacus at Leinster House. (His answer? "I am here meeting my constituents.")

And I certainly will not be standing in the most expensive betting ring with my photographer and shouting, "Father!" to see the startled faces of Irish clerics wearing golfing waterproofs and mufti to disguise their vocations.

One priest pleaded with me for anonymity, declaring, "I told my bishop I was on a course. I didn't tell him it was a racecourse!"

Only once in all my years of sleuthing for Irish celebrities, TDs, senators and clergy did I unearth a priest who was happy to be not only quoted but photographed. In his late-60s, he was wearing a wide, pristine Roman collar and a well-tailored black suit. A dead ringer for the late Jimmy O'Dea, he was sipping champagne in the Arkle Bar with friends from Enniskillen after his horse had triumphed. He explained: "I am a late vocation. I had a life before being a priest and when I was ordained the Cardinal (the late Tomas O Fiaich) allowed me to keep one horse. This has upset the other priests in the diocese. And when they see my photograph in the paper tomorrow they'll be f***ing sick!"

And missing for the third year running will be Cavan-born priest Fr Sean Breen from Templeogue. He died before the 2010 festival. An obsessional follower of the national hunt, Fr Breen enlivened many Cheltenhams with his daily celebration of the Mass for winners at the sumptuous Golden Valley Hotel and other venues patronised by fellow worshippers at the shrine of Kauto Star and Binocular.

Another professional chore was Royal watching. Then, as now, no Cheltenham was complete without a gaggle from the Family Firm present. The Queen is expected this week. Her late mother was a regular. She always presented the trophy after the Queen Mother's Champion Hurdle. In her last years she didn't walk to the Winner's Enclosure but sat and waved from the back of an electric buggy complete with a peak-capped driver and the Royal crest.

In 1986 she was able to perambulate from the Royal Box to the Winners' Enclosure to present the Gold Cup to Mrs Charmian Hill after her mare, Dawn Run, ridden by Jonjo O'Neill, triumphed in the premier race. Irish punters made millions on Dawn Run. One exuberant racegoer, a butcher from Co Longford, was so overcome he tumbled on to the podium, swathed Her Majesty in an exuberant embrace and swept the tiny lady off her feet.

Incidentally, the following year Mrs Hill was mysteriously unable to return the Gold Cup for the 1987 winner, saying it had disappeared from her home. Fortunately it was found in time hidden in some hay in one of her barns.

I was there when Prince Charles tried his luck on the Prestbury Park circuit and was duly unseated.

And during the last major economic downturn in the Eighties I encountered on the first day in the Club Enclosure gambler, now trainer, Barney Curley. He observed that Cheltenham aficionados had been obliged to make major sacrifices to attend that year's Mecca of steeple chasing.

"How so?" I asked.

Barney replied: "This year I've had to leave the wife at home."

My first 10 pilgrimages to the Holy Grail of National Hunt racing were enriched by sharing a hotel with Raymond 'Congo' Smith. The great Raymond knew everyone in racing and was universally loved. His only drawback in my eyes was each year telling the same joke in the after-hours bar of the Wellsley Court Hotel a short stroll from the race track. The gag, which triggered far more ostentatious laughter from Congo than any of his listeners, concerned the Irish farmer and his wife who went to a psychiatrist about their grown son who thought he was a hen.

Asked the shrink: "How long has he believed he is a hen?"

Farmer: "Ten years."

Shrink: "Why didn't you come to me earlier?"

Farmer: "We needed the eggs."

I can still hear Raymond's unique chortle echoing through Cheltenham.

Sunday Independent