Thursday 22 February 2018

Nonsense finds its own level

Eamonn Sweeney

A s Irish-trained horses almost went through the card at Cheltenham on Wednesday, the media were teeing one up for our racing fraternity. But though our owners and trainers knew what they were being asked to say, they just weren't biting.

"This is not an economic forum," said Sean Deane of the Hammer and Trowel syndicate from Clane who own Mares Hurdle winner Quevega.

"There's a record number of people coming over," said JP McManus.

"There are a lot of very wealthy owners still out there," said Henry de Bromhead, who trained Sizing Europe to win the Champion Chase.

What the British media, and some of our own journalists who should know better, wanted to do was spin a line about Irish success at Cheltenham being some kind of riposte to national economic disaster. They wanted one of racing's big guns to say that while Pat may be having some tough times he forgets it all when he sees an Irish horse triumph in the Cotswolds. Or even that the sight of a horse owned by a developer coming first makes him feel all warm and fuzzy again towards that particular section of society. They wanted a story about pluck spitting in the face of poverty. All the clichés about an Austerity Cheltenham were lined up and ready for the off. But the likes of Sean Deane had too much cop on to play that game.

You see, success at Cheltenham won't change the fact that the combination of extremely rich people, festivals and racecourses conjures up an image of the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger. You think Galway tent, you think bollockses like the Bailey brothers larging it, you think Horse Racing Ireland paying John O'Donoghue's way at Cheltenham, you think of Forpadydeplasterer, a joke name which now rings as hollow as if Silvio Berlusconi had called a filly Randyyoungwan.

Some of the English papers found the Irish performance at Cheltenham remarkable given the IMF bailout. Yet winning owners such as Michael O'Leary, retired developer George Creighton or Alan Potts, who makes around €100m a year from the mining industry, aren't affected by the economic downturn. De Bromhead was right -- there are a lot of very wealthy owners out there. People who own top racehorses, like the people who appeared in the Rich List published in this paper last week, generally aren't worrying about how they'll meet the next bill. There is nothing at all surprising about the fact that they continue to prosper on the racecourse.

Yet the pretence continues, mainly in the British media, that Irish racing is some kind of egalitarian fairyland. Hence the fact that Forpadydeplasterer's win in last year's Arkle Trophy was greeted with the Daily Telegraph headline, 'Victory for the common man', despite the fact that the horse was owned by a syndicate headed by Charlie Chawke, who at the time owned a lump of one Premier League club, Sunderland, and was trying to buy another, Newcastle United. This is the kind of shite beloved by English journalists who possess an uncanny knack of finding colourful Paddies who address them as, "sor," a salutation which died out around 1847.

It's harmless enough I suppose. We know that this kind of thing makes the English happy so we go along with it. And, in fairness, acting the peasant with no arse in his trousers isn't peculiar to the horse racing fan, as anyone who's seen Irish writers giving it the full spalpeen at London literary events could tell you.

The truth is that you need to be wealthy to own the kind of racehorse which will make a mark at Cheltenham. And most of the people who travel to Cheltenham every year are pulling in a bit more than the average wage. Expecting the Festival to be bereft of an Irish presence because of the recession was nonsense. So it was to the credit of the successful owners and trainers last week that they realised it would be unseemly to suggest their success had a positive message for people struggling to make ends meet.

That sporting success somehow points the way to national recovery is one of the most persistent, and one of the oddest, canards of the current crisis. Think of all those letters to the editor which suggested a couple of years ago that if Ireland could only follow the lead of Declan Kidney and the Irish rugby team we'd be top of the economic pops once more. These suggestions aren't much more sensible than my conviction at the age of ten that if Phil Lynott was Taoiseach we'd all be much happier. In reality, the country is not suffering a crisis of character or morale, it's suffering an economic crisis. Economics got us into this mess and economics will have to get us out of it.

This loony notion that sport can somehow do what politics can't also accounts for stuff like Fintan O'Toole's statement in the Guardian last year that "the economic boom was sparked by the confidence boost of qualification for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups under Jack Charlton". Aside from its being patently insane, the main drawback of this theory is the failure to explain why unemployment rose in 1991 and 1992 and didn't dip below double figures until 1997, something we can presumably also attribute to a major sporting event. What happened in 1997? Cavan won the Ulster football title thus sending the people of Ireland's most parsimonious county into a frenzy of joy which made them spend like crazy, creating a consumer boom and inaugurating the Tiger era. It's easy enough to do this kind of stuff once you get going. Deluded, but easy.

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney's utterly vacuous statement that "at a time of economic adversity, the success of Irish breeders, trainers and jockeys shows what we are capable of in this country," is a classic example of this kind of guff. Is the minister saying, as he seems to be, that during times of economic boom the success of Irish breeders, trainers and jockeys doesn't show what we are capable of in this country? Or is it just one of those meaningless sentences which shows that if Irish politicians were racehorses they'd be the kind that gets pulled up five from home while tailed off in a selling plate at Fakenham?

But Sean Deane's short answer to those who wanted to turn Quevega's moment of triumph into a parable for our times had more horse sense in it than all those efforts to link sporting and economic success. The truth is that the great Irish week at Cheltenham meant enough in its own right. The six out of seven on Wednesday, Ruby's magical treble on Tuesday and the fact that this seemed to be a better than average year for many people at the bookies were worthy of celebration. There was no need to look for deeper meanings.

Myself, I'd like to thank Sizing Europe, Junior, Plato and Bobs Worth while mourning the fact that Get Me Out Of Here does not have a longer snout and wondering what good reason there was for an ostensibly sensible man not to back Quevega.

And if it wasn't an Austerity Cheltenham, it was a Cheltenham with a bit less bullshit, pretence and nonsense than in the last few years. But Irish success on the racecourse doesn't make this a great little country any more than East German athletic triumphs in the Olympics made that particular dysfunctional state a paradise to live in.

Begging your pardon your honour, but that does be the way of it so it does. Sor.

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