And they're off - 10,000 Irish invade Cheltenham
A STRONG constitution, a warm pair of thermal underpants and a string of good luck were top of Cheltenham racegoers' checklist as they made their way through Dublin Airport yesterday morning.
It was a veteran crowd who arrived with battered binocular cases swinging from their necks and the Irish Independent Cheltenham supplement tucked firmly under their arms. Most were already thinking of betting slips and tips.
"Bring plenty and expect to lose plenty," Edward Ludlow from Drogheda warned. But others offered more practical advice.
"Arrive early, pace yourself and remember to insulate properly," Eamonn Heffernan from Dublin said. "I should know - I've been going to Cheltenham since 1974."
Over 10,000 Irish punters will flock to Prestbury Park this week. "It's an Irish equine and human invasion," Noel O'Brien of the Turf Club said. "Cheltenham is where the best horses and the best jockeys battle it out - it's a clash of the titans."
Noel has been attending the festival for 27 years and believes the age-old national rivalry between Ireland and England adds to the festival's ambience. "It's great to see Irish horses tear ahead, especially on English soil," he said with a laugh. "There is a great sense of history at Cheltenham. That's what makes it so special."
Conversation en route to the Cotswolds inevitably turned to 4,344-time race winner AP McCoy - whose retirement will be a major part of this year's festival. "If AP wins the Gold Cup on Friday there won't be a dry eye in the place," Rod O'Callaghan from Rathcoole said.
"It would be great to see him win and come out sound and fit - I think we're all hoping for that."
Cheltenham has renamed the final race of the festival the AP McCoy Grand Annual Chase in his honour and bookmaker Paddy Power will serve up 4,344 free pints of Guinness to thank the jockey for his outstanding career.
"AP's retirement will be the talk of Cleeve Hill," said Justin Prendergast from Wexford.
But today, all eyes are on Willie Mullins' formidable battalion. Mullins has five favourites racing including Douvan in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Un De Sceaux in the Arkle Chase, Champion Hurdle hopefuls Faugheen and Hurricane Fly and Mares' Hurdle favourite Annie Power.