Monday 19 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: We could do with a winner

Things were grim in Ireland in 1977. Really grim. Grim, grim, grim. Only a few years earlier it had seemed that the bad old days of economic depression were gone forever as the country experienced the greatest prosperity in its history. Then a worldwide recession sent the Irish economy into a nosedive.

There was 12.5 per cent unemployment, 13.9 per cent inflation and the government's performance was described by Business and Finance magazine as "deplorable. Unemployment is a festering sore, and despite the announcement of new industrial projects with heightening enthusiasm . . . the race to provide jobless and school leavers with employment while maintaining existing jobs is not being won."

A poll found that only 7 per cent of people trusted the coalition to improve the unemployment situation.

How things have changed. Then, as now, people took solace from sport. Some things haven't changed much in there either. Thirty three years ago this week, there were suggestions that the National Hurling League needed to be restructured because one of the traditionally powerful counties, Limerick on this occasion, had just been relegated.

And some things have changed. Austin Stacks' 1-13 to 2-7 victory over Ballerin of Derry in the All-Ireland club football final was witnessed by just 8,971 supporters at Croke Park, not a bad crowd at the time for a largely unsung competition. A Munster team, containing many of the players who a year later would defeat the All Blacks, lost 51-13 to Cardiff. And Liverpool scored a dramatic 3-1 win over France's Saint Etienne at Anfield, super sub David Fairclough getting a goal six minutes from time which sent the home side through to the European Cup semi-final and presaged an era of international glory for the club.

One thing which does remain eternal is the Irishman's love of Cheltenham. Forty horses travelled from this country for the three-day meeting that year and, though there was the usual mixture of well founded expectation and blind faith, few people expected it would be one of the great festivals for the Irish, culminating in a spectacular St Patrick's Day finale headlined by a supremely unlikely Gold Cup winner.

It would not, however, be business as usual at the country's largest bookmaking chain. Four days before the festival, the 220 clerks at Kilmartins Bookies picketed the firm's 72 Dublin offices. The clerks, almost all of whom were women, were fed up with a situation where, in the words of one employee, "to get to the toilet I have to pull up a trap in the floor, climb down a steep ladder which has no hand-rail and make my way past rubbish in the basement. The walls of the toilet are green with rot. On wet days I bring an umbrella, because rain drips down through the broken glass set into the pavement above."

This clerk from the Trinity Street office, it was noted, "is luckier than many of her colleagues who work in betting premises in poor districts. To get to the outside toilet in Kilmartins in Sherrif Street, another woman has to climb through a window to reach the yard. There is no back door. She again is luckier than her colleagues in 14 other Kilmartins shops where there are no toilets at all."

Over in Cheltenham, the Irish got the festival off to the perfect start with victory in the very first race, on Tuesday March 15, 21-year-old Sean Treacy steering 6/1 shot Counsel Cottage to victory in the SunAlliance Novices Hurdle to give trainer Paddy Mullins only his second Cheltenham win. Three lengths behind in second place was Master Smudge, later to become infamous in Irish racing memory as the horse retrospectively awarded the 1980 Gold Cup after Tied Cottage was disqualified for a doping offence.

And there was another Irish win in the second race, the honours being done by the Brian Lusk-trained Skymas, one of this country's great Cheltenham performers. Matt Magee's horse was bidding to become the first horse since 1968 to win the Champion Chase two years in a row and the first ever 12-year-old. He was also hampered by soft ground which he hated. But, as the rain poured down, Skymas, piloted tenaciously by Michael 'Mouse' Morris, held on to win by three quarters of a length from 14/1 outsider Grangewood Girl.

Stirring and all as these two victories were, there was nothing unprecedented about them. Not only had Skymas repeated his Champion Chase victory of the previous year but the Irish had been exerting a stranglehold over the Novices Hurdle. Counsel Cottage's win made it five in a row. Two years previously, the winner had been a five-year-old named Davy Lad.

Day two seemed to confirm this would be a good but not great Cheltenham for the Irish. Our only victory came in the Lloyds Bank Champion Novice Hurdle where Macs Chariot beat the Michael Dickinson-trained favourite French Hollow by two and a half lengths. Macs Chariot was ridden by Dessie Hughes and trained by Michael O'Toole, who observed ruefully that he would have had "a right bet," on the horse if the going had been better. There would be more to come from the Hughes/O'Toole team.

Most of the attention on the second day, however, centred on the Champion Hurdle where the great Night Nurse made it two wins in a row. There was an Irish connection in that Night Nurse's veteran jockey, Paddy Broderick, was a Mullingar man. The race had become a graveyard for the hopes of the Irish who had not won since the one-eyed Winning Fair's victory in 1963 for George Spencer, father of future champion Flat jockey Jamie, and the fancied Master Monday never really figured. However, the surprise 15/1 runner-up, a five-year-old named Monksfield, would be back the following year to spoil Night Nurse's hat-trick bid and end this particular Irish famine.

And so to St Patrick's Day 1977 when the visitors won a wholly unexpected four out of six races to make this the second best Cheltenham ever for Ireland, after the eight-win year of 1958. It would be 1996 before we did as well again and while 2006's ten-victory bonanza is now the benchmark, it took four days to achieve.

It became clear something special might be in the offing when the day began with a first ever Irish victory in the Triumph Hurdle. A huge crowd had travelled from Waterford to cheer on Meladon, among them hotelier Noel Flynn, husband of owner Nora, who'd bet on the horse at 33/1 ante-post.

A return on this investment looked unlikely when Meladon jumped unconvincingly and lay back in 12th coming down the hill. But this reckoned without Tommy Carberry, who timed his effort perfectly as the Adrian Maxwell-trained horse made a remarkable surge in the closing stages to win by three quarters of a length.

The big Irish money was on the outstanding Bannow Rambler making it seven wins out of ten in the Gold Cup. Runaway winner of the Lloyds Bank Hurdle two years previously, Bannow Rambler, trained in Wexford by Padge Berry, had warmed up by winning the Leopardstown Chase. Among his victims was the Michael O'Toole-trained Davy Lad which had received 11 pounds from the winner that day and was an unfancied 14/1 shot in the big race.

Bannow Rambler went off as favourite and it appeared the only horse which could stop him was Fred Winter's Lanzarote, bidding to become the first ever horse to do the Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double after winning the former race four years earlier. This proved to be the case, though not in a way anyone would have expected.

At the ninth fence, Lanzarote fell so heavily that he was subsequently put down. He also brought down Bannow Rambler. The favourite's jockey Michael Furlong remounted but he was too far adrift and subsequently pulled up. With the big two gone, it was 20/1 outsider Tied Cottage, trained by Dan Moore and ridden by Tommy Carberry, who made the running, trailed by the English 15/1 shot Summerville which drew level with him two out.

All the while, however, Davy Lad and Dessie Hughes had been gaining ground and they took the lead coming to the final fence. The run-in was a desperate test of endurance with the three outsiders looking out on their feet but it was Davy Lad which lasted best, coming home six lengths clear of Tied Cottage. There may have been many better winners of the Blue Riband event but there have been few gamer. His trainer Michael O'Toole, who'd backed the horse when he was 50/1, admitted that he'd only run Davy Lad in the Gold Cup because some leading contenders had dropped out.

It was a day when the unfancied did the unlikely. Sligo trainer Billy Boyers had never even run a horse in England before 14/1 shot Kilcoleman started the County Handicap Hurdle. The ground did not suit the horse yet Tommy Kinane worked wonders to get him home by three quarters of a length from the favourite Mwanadike, another Irish contender, ridden by Frank Berry.

And, with ideal symmetry, the Irish took the last race of the festival as they had taken the first. The six-year-old favourite Rusty Tears walked away with the Champion Hunters Chase for Edward O'Grady. On board was an 18-year-old amateur, Niall Madden, winning his first race at Cheltenham. Like Monksfield, and indeed Edward O'Grady, Madden was far from finished with the festival.

The hordes of Irish returned home that weekend to headlines about an IRA hunger strike in Portlaoise, possible strikes by bus conductors, ambulance drivers and building workers, a 30 per cent increase in hospital charges, a 25 per cent rise in bus and train fares and a hike in the price of drink. They had left with the papers reporting a strike by supervisors which had crippled the country's airports, one by Dublin telephonists which meant that no one could make a call which required the assistance of the operator, one at the HB Ice Cream factory in Rathfarnham and another at the Cadburys Chocolate factory.

But the chances are that they, and those watching at home on television as Davy Lad battled through the mire, as Meladon zoomed in from nowhere and Skymas gave it his all, didn't care about those things and didn't give a thought to the generally parlous state of the nation. At that moment, all that mattered was what was going on in a small corner of Gloucestershire.

Sport offered them an escape then, as it will offer an awful lot of people an escape now. Perhaps this is a bad thing. But in this brutally hard year, as we travel the same road as our parents and our younger selves did in 1977, maybe an escape is just what we need.

May all your bets this week come off. And pass the good tip you got on to your friends. Right now, we could all do with a winner.

Sunday Independent

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