Fans beat odds to reach Olympics of jump racing
THE pilgrims refused to be knocked off course.
Travel plans thwarted by cancelled ferries and delayed flights did not deter the hordes of hardy racegoers destined for the Mecca of jump racing – Cheltenham.
A 4am text message to learn his ferry was staying firmly docked in port sent Martin Joyce (49) scrambling for his computer in the wee hours.
"I got up and booked a flight and car at Birmingham Airport and away we go. It can't be missed, you know," said the bleary-eyed native of Fermoy, Co Cork, at the check-in desk in Dublin Airport, as he made his 25th trip to the Cotswolds racecourse.
"I'd go on my hands and knees. The only thing that would stop me was if they moved Cheltenham to September and Cork were in the All-Ireland hurling final."
With those thick wads of sterling nestled safely out of view, there were plenty of lucky charms, scarves and well-worn caps scarpering swiftly through security.
His hat jammed firmly down on his head, Michael Jordan, from Dublin, quipped that he was off on his annual holiday.
"I wear this hat every year for Cheltenham and I don't wear it for the rest of the year. Is it lucky? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't," he said, as he divulged he had his money on Zarkandar in today's Champion Hurdle.
David Savage, who's from Maynooth, Co Kildare and had a few relative 'novices' in tow, said this was the 37th year that he has ventured across the sea to the festival.
"My favourite year was Dawn Run. I started going when I was 19, I'll be 56 this year. Absolutely nothing would stop me going – marriage, childbirth, nothing like that ever stopped me," he revealed, with his money going on Michael O'Leary's Gold Cup hope, Sir Des Champs.
"My wife thinks I'm going to Lourdes," joked one racegoer, as he rounded up his mammoth gang of intrepid travellers from Wicklow and further afield.
"It is an annual pilgrimage not to be missed," said his friend, Gerard Lister. "You often hear it over the tannoy at Cheltenham beware of pickpockets. The pickpockets, you can see them, but the bookies . . ."
With his lucky Kauto Star scarf around his neck, Naas man Brian Flanagan revealed he'd love to see jockey Ruby Walsh land the Champion Hurdle aboard Hurricane Fly on this 15th trip to the track.
"I'll be back with a few quid in my pocket," he said.
The 230,000 racegoers – including around 15,000 Irish fans – were urged to wrap up warm with a numbing north-easterly wind whistling across the Cotswolds.
Even the ground was being blanketed against the bitter cold, as 300 staff laid down frost covers across 65 acres of green turf.
It would take more than that to deter racegoers, as the four-day action-packed festival remains as "popular" as ever, according to Cheltenham Racecourse spokesman Andy Clifton.
Mary Lee, from Newbridge Travel, one of the tour operators bringing racegoers to Cheltenham, said they had booked in fans for plenty of shorter two and three-day trips.
"We are catering for people's pockets at the end of the day, so our packages would be really flexible," she added.
Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), hailed it as the only place to be this week for Irish breeders, trainers and fans.
"It is the Olympics of jump racing around the world," he said. "The whole season is built around Cheltenham."
Bookies expect Irish racing fans to splurge €120m over the four days.