Thursday 26 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Cheltenham brings out the best in us...we can't wait for next year

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Willie Mullins (left) watches his string on the gallops at Cheltenham last week. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Willie Mullins (left) watches his string on the gallops at Cheltenham last week. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eamonn Sweeney

1 Rivals: Could they be more different? The man who was born into the trade and the man who worked his way into it.

The man who rarely gives away what he's thinking and the man who wears his heart on his sleeve. The king and the man who would be the king. The Carlow yin and the Meath yang. All they have in common is genius. The battle at Cheltenham these days is not Ireland versus England but Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott against the field. They won, 15-13.

Katie Walsh is led in after winning the Champion Bumper on Relegate. Photo: Sportsfile
Katie Walsh is led in after winning the Champion Bumper on Relegate. Photo: Sportsfile

When Laurina won the Mares Novices Hurdle to put Mullins top of the all-time Cheltenham rankings, you got the feeling of a long quest finally being consummated. He began his career in an age when Irish victories at the Festival were a glorious exception rather than a rule. The idea that an Irish trainer could amass 61 victories would have seemed impossibly far-fetched.

Such is the nature of Mullins' achievement that we are apt to take it as a given, damning it with faint praise. Yet look at the circumstances in which he struck seven times this year. His star jockey was lost to injury before the half-way point, his two most talented horses, Douvan and Faugheen, have been shadows of their old selves lately, there were reverses for hot favourites in the Supreme Novices and the Ryanair Chase. And still Mullins kept coming back to win, the awesome strength in depth of his stable as impressive as it was when the Punchestown tour de force gave him the Irish trainers' title last year.

Through it all he retains the same implacable demeanour. Perhaps Willie Mullins doesn't actually treat triumph and disaster just the same but he sure looks like he does. Gordon Elliott doesn't get the credit he deserves either. There seemed to be general agreement that his tilt at Mullins' crown last season wouldn't be repeated this term. It has been. And when he drew a blank on the first day of the Festival there might have been suggestions that last year's six-timer had been a flash in the pan.

Elliott felt so bad after that first day, he said, that he felt like flying home. The heir apparent doesn't hide his emotions. He spoke before the Festival about dreaming, actually dreaming in his sleep, about replacing Mullins at the top. When Elliott drew level at the top of the trainers' standings with his seventh victory, he held up seven fingers to his camera. His jubilation at a victory is as obvious as that of any air punching punter in the stands.

Davy Russell celebrates after winning the Ryanair Chase on Balko Des Flos. Photo: Sportsfile
Davy Russell celebrates after winning the Ryanair Chase on Balko Des Flos. Photo: Sportsfile

And when he scored the record-equalling eighth in the second last race of the Festival, the Martin Pipe Hurdle, to become the Festival's leading trainer for the second year in a row, it seemed, in its own way, as symbolic of changing times as Mullins overhauling Nicky Henderson at the top of the all-time list. Yet again Elliott had come through late to prevail at Cheltenham. He is in it for the long haul.

There is an epic quality to this rivalry. It is becoming racing's Ali-Frazier, its Dublin-Kerry. Cheltenham is Willie and Gordon's world, everyone else must get by the best they can.

2 Families

People like to tell the story about how Ted Walsh once commentated on a big-race photo finish involving Ruby without betraying a hint of bias or emotion. It makes a nice tribute to the man's professionalism but its inadvertent implication that Ted is a somewhat cold-blooded creature is misleading. Because nobody has ever mistaken Ted for anything but the fondest of fathers.

On Wednesday after Ruby suffered the fall which ruled him out of a Festival he had worked so hard to make, his father was there to help him off the track. No painted pieta ever expressed parental love more eloquently. "To me," said Ted, "he's only a kid." And when Katie Walsh won the Champion Bumper on Relegate, after a perfectly judged performance her brother would have been proud of, she seemed more distressed about Ruby's injury than happy about her own victory. This is what families are like.

But they're not just there for the bad times. Seconds after Bridget Andrews had piloted 33/1 shot Mohaayed to victory in the County Hurdle, the jockey of the sixth-placed horse planted a kiss on her. Which was understandable given that he was her boyfriend, Harry Skelton. Harry's brother Dan was pretty happy too because he'd trained the horse. Harry and Dan's father Nick, winner of the gold medal in showjumping at the last Olympics, seemed pretty chuffed, declaring, "Bridget is part of the family." And Bridget's dad Simon, a former jockey, teared up when trying to explain what the victory meant to him.

Harry, Bridget explained, had shouted advice to her as the race entered the final stages. That's love.

3 Women

There's a lot of nonsense talked about women in sport sometimes, the pretence that Serena Williams could give a top male tennis player a game being a classic case in point. Yet there is one group of sportswomen who take on male competition on equal terms and are doing better all the time. Much more fuss should be made about women jockeys.

Katie Walsh and Bridget Andrews weren't the only winning women at the Festival. Harriet Tucker won the Foxhunters Chase on Pacha Du Polder while Lizzie Kelly took the Ultima Chase on Coo Star Sivola.

Kelly's victory seems especially noteworthy because her career has been an example of the pitfalls faced by women jockeys. She's had to overcome being accused of only getting her chance because she is the stepdaughter of trainer Nick Williams, being the subject of absolutely vile tabloid coverage of her private life and being sneered at after, as the first female jockey to ride in the race, she fell in last year's Gold Cup.

Yet she has ploughed on regardless, maintaining all the while the air of a plucky heroine overcoming the odds in some old English spy movie. We'll be hearing an awful lot more in years to come about women jockeys. Soon they'll just be known as jockeys.

4 Jockeys

After winning the RSA Chase on Presenting Percy, Davy Russell looked to the skies and held his hands up in tribute to his mother Phyllis, who died last week. Interviewed by ITV shortly afterwards, his tribute had an awkward unpolished sincere beauty about it which will stay in the mind for a long time.

No-one had more winners at the Festival than the man from Youghal who, as he closes in on 40, has never ridden better. The effort and strain of the jockey's life is carved in Russell's features more than most and watching his string of masterly performances I can't help remembering the abuse he got after apparently punching a horse at Tramore a few months ago.

Most of the social media outrage junkies who rounded on Russell probably hadn't even heard of him before the incident became a two-day wonder. He was the latest target for our modern equivalent of the Two Minutes Hate described by George Orwell in 1984. Once they'd finished venting their spleen against the jockey, they'd have moved on to the next bete noir. And Davy Russell? He'd have got back to work.

Are any sportsmen more subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than jockeys? Last year's Festival was expected to witness a big breakthrough for the under-rated Mark Walsh, selected to ride JP McManus's leading horses in the absence of the injured Barry Geraghty. It never happened, a fall in the opening race of day two saw Walsh ruled out of the remainder of the Festival where he had never ridden a winner. This year he scarcely figured in the previews.

If you'd told Mark Walsh on Wednesday morning that he'd break his Cheltenham duck in that day's Coral Cup, he'd hardly have believed you. He didn't even have a mount in the race. Yet the reshuffle prompted by the injury to Ruby Walsh saw his namesake handed Bleu Berry which he piloted expertly to victory at 16/1. Swings and roundabouts.

Ruby Walsh's injury underlined again the precarious nature of perhaps the only job in the world where an ambulance tails you as you go to work. Five years ago Bryan Cooper won three races at Cheltenham and the future seemed to belong to him. A cruel run of injuries has meant that this year the 25-year-old was merely a peripheral figure.

It really is the toughest trade. No matter how good they are, jockeys know that there is a pain schedule which has to be filled out in their career. Yet, interviewed as they line up at the start or as they've just finished, they are the most sanguine, the least precious and the best mannered of all professional sportsmen. They are a breed apart.

5 Wonderkids

Would Samcro live up to the hype? Could any horse live up to Samcro's hype? The answer turned out to be 'yes', the prodigy cruising round before accelerating clear in the Ballymore Hurdle as though a switch had just been flicked.

The world is at Samcro's feet and right now his potential seems unlimited. You could say the same about his rider. It's hard to credit that Jack Kennedy is just 18. Has anyone been so good so young? At that age Ruby Walsh was still an amateur and did not become leading festival jockey till he was 24. This year the young Kerryman had as many wins as Davy Russell and seems set to become for Gordon Elliott what Walsh has been for Mullins. There is no more talented Irish teenager in any sport.

Given the tit-for-tat nature of the rivalry, it's not surprising that Mullins also produced a prodigy. Laurina's 18-length win in the Mares' Novices Hurdle was one of the easiest wins ever seen at Cheltenham, a victory facile enough to make you wonder how she'd have fared against the best of the boys. Maybe that'll happen at Punchestown.

6 English

That English-trained horses ended up with 11 victories seems a minor miracle given the near whitewashes of days two and three. It is an improvement on last year's total of nine. All the same this was their second poorest effort ever at the Festival and you'd hold out little hope for any great renaissance next year.

Still, they did win both the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle for the first time since 2012 and Nicky Henderson came within a couple of lengths of being the first trainer to win both those races and the Champion Chase. He may resemble Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle more with every passing year but Henderson has kept the home flag flying in the face of Mullins and Elliott.

It's hard to see who will take up his mantle. The eclipse of the highly rated Sam Spinner in the Stayers' Hurdle and Apple's Shakira in the Triumph Hurdle seemed to show that English form really can't be relied upon at the moment. Leopardstown's Dublin Racing Festival already seems the best guide to what might happen in March.

7 Big shots

JP McManus normally does a pretty good poker face but he found it hard to hide his glee just before the start of the Pertemps Final where his Glenloe had been backed in to favouritism on the day. And when Glenloe and Barry Geraghty cruised up to dispute the lead just before the last, you could see the script unfolding before your eyes.

But when the horse hit the hurdle a whack, Delta Work and Davy Russell seized their opportunity. Up the straight the two horses were locked together as the jockeys battled might and main, crossing the line together. A photo finish gave it to Delta Work by a nostril. Even JP McManus loses the odd one.

Michael O'Leary always loses the Ryanair Chase. Until this year that is when Balko Des Flos finally gave him the opportunity to win back his own money and lift his own trophy which was presented by his own wife. It had the air of one of those jokes O'Leary used to torment his Aer Lingus rivals with back in the day.

Had he not been injured at last year's Festival, chances are Douvan would probably be the biggest name in National Hunt racing. Instead he's spent 12 months in the wilderness and it was a real surprise to see him line out in the Champion Chase. Yet, before falling four out, Douvan showed enough of his old self to suggest that a great duel lies ahead between him and the magnificent Altior.

Add in Footpad, whose Arkle Chase victory was every bit as impressive as those of Douvan and Altior, and Champion Chase 2019 already looks a potential classic. Since Sprinter Sacre, it's the two-mile chases which have satisfied the Cheltenham fan's capacity for wonder.

8 Delusion

When Delta Work came in, that made it seven winners out of 16 races and propelled me into the world of fantasy. I imagined myself strolling menacingly around Punchestown, hearing children whisper, "Why are the bookies trembling daddy?" "That's The Rural Kid, son, he'll clean them out." I toyed with the idea of nipping in to Skibbereen Post Office and filling out a form which would forward my post to the Bahamas.

They were a good first three days overall for the punters. Going in to bet Friday morning I knew that I was a few quid up no matter what happened on the final day. Which was just as well. The long shots began to come in, at 33s, at 25s, and I realised that there is a reason why there are so many more betting offices than professional gamblers. Still, where would we be without our delusions and fantasies?

9 Irish

The Gold Cup was a marvellous race. Native River's maintenance of a punishing pace from the get go called to mind the bravery of Crisp in the 1973 Grand National. This time the front-runner got his just rewards.

Yet my favourite memory of this year's Cheltenham was Presenting Percy's victory in the RSA Chase. Between the achievement of Pat Kelly in producing such a terrific horse out of a tiny stable in Galway, the nervousness beforehand and grace afterwards of owner Philip Reynolds, Davy Russell's moving tribute to his late mother and Ted Walsh helping Ruby off the track after his fall on Al Boum Photo, it was a race of incredible emotional richness.

It struck me as I watched Kelly and Reynolds and Russell and the Walshes and all of our racing fraternity in action this week how Cheltenham shows the Irish character at its best. Our standard is carried by hard-working, understated, good-humoured people, people who are obviously, unapologetically, distinctively Irish yet have not a trace of Stage Irishness about them.

These people know and like and are proud of who they are. Comfortable in their own skins, they feel no need to act the galoot for anyone. They are, in the words of Yeats, "The indomitable Irishry," and every year in St Patrick's week they represent us overseas better than any politician ever does.

Four days like this a year would see us right. Only 360 sleeps to Cheltenham.

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