THOUSANDS of Irish race-goers packed out pubs in the English countryside last night for the annual invasion of Cheltenham.
Up to 15,000 Irish punters are expected to travel to the Cotswolds racecourse this week, with the four-day festival kicking off today.
The travelling contingent were in full voice yesterday as they eagerly awaited the start of the National Hunt showpiece.
Former Irish international Niall Quinn described the festival as the highlight of his year.
The dad of two is here for the week with a gang of lads, including a first-timer – his son, Michael.
"This is Mikey's debut at Cheltenham so we're looking forward to it," said Niall. "We'll be here until the money runs out. It's the highlight of my year, I love coming here."
Meath punters Liam Carey, Joseph McEntaggart and Gabriel Donnelly were looking forward to their annual sing-song.
"We don't drink and gamble at the racecourse so we will be on our best behaviour today," Liam (66) told the Herald.
Former Galway hurling manager John McIntyre is a regular visitor to Cheltenham and has made the annual excursion since 1989.
John, who was in the UK with his friend, former barrister Michael Needham, said his hopes are hinging on the success of champion trainer Willie Mullins' horses this week.
"Our fortunes will depend on how Mullins does because he has a lot of potential winners running today, so my money's on him," said John.
Dublin presenter Rachel Wyse is also in town and ready to celebrate after securing a new three-year contract with Sky Sports in London.
The Blackrock native (28), who is this year's Cheltenham ambassador, drove from London yesterday and enjoyed dinner with her Sky Sports colleagues at a Cotswolds apartment last night.
"It's going to be a hectic week for me because I'm in Cheltenham until Thursday, then I'm flying home to Dublin for work on Friday and I'm straight back to Sky Sports on Sunday," she said.
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