Monday 19 March 2018

Two sleeps before trying to avoid going arse over withers

Jockey Rachael Blackmore. Picture: PA
Jockey Rachael Blackmore. Picture: PA

Fergus McDonnell

And we're off. The 9.15 at Westmanstown is a sort of all-aged bumper run mostly on the flat but with a few obstacles which the 350-odd runners may or may not negotiate. It begins with a 30-yard dash to either corner at the back of the room where tables are laden with all sorts of delicious artery-clogging goodies.

One lap of the table, two if you're a glutton for punishment (or just a glutton) and it's back to your seat with a cardboard container packed with sausages (cocktail), rings (onion) and wedges (potato). You may or may not visit the bar but chances are you will because you'll need something to help wash it down.

And by then there was a lot to digest, both literally and figuratively.

We're in Westmanstown for a Cheltenham preview night, sponsored by Paddy Power and in aid of Barretstown Children's Charity which helps children and their families dealing with serious illness. 'When the fun stops, stop', goes the slogan to warn against excessive gambling. Barretstown do their best to keep the fun in these children's lives.

The panel is made up of jockeys Rachael Blackmore, Ruby Walsh and Jack Kennedy; trainer Warren Greatrex; professional punter and analyst Andy Gibson; journalist Dave Jennings and Paddy Power's Paddy Power. Willie Mullins gives his views over the phone and jockey Sean Flanagan is marked absent because his wife has given birth earlier in the day.

Master of ceremonies Denis Kirwan kicks it off by announcing that there are only six sleeps left to the start of this year's Festival. "It is," he says, "the closest adults can get to the excitement they felt as children on Christmas Eve." Nobody in the room would argue with that.

The purpose of the night is to try to mine a few winners from the mass of information, interpretation, extrapolation and good old-fashioned imagination the floods the senses of punters at this time of year. From the hundreds of runners, only 27 will pass the post first. It's a daunting task.

The small green bookies' biros were stretched to their limit as the assembled reacted to the words of wisdom from the top table. One minute all heads in the audience would be raised in close attention, the next they would drop, almost as one, for a bout of furious scribbling so that a precious gem of guidance would be saved.

"You're going to go poor backing short-priced favourites at the Festival," insisted Gibson. And yet, from Jack Kennedy's deadpan delivery, to Dave Jennings' rapid firing of facts and opinions, to Ruby Walsh's educated eye, there was a Buveur D'Air of confidence around the Champion Hurdle.

The audience were in stitches when a bout of verbal sparring broke out involving Walsh, Jennings and Greatrex. Jennings, the Deputy Irish Editor of the Racing Post, mentioned that La Bague Au Roi, a leading fancy for the Mares' Hurdle, was rated 147. "No she's not," insisted Walsh, "she's rated 153." "Are you sure?" asked Jennings. "I am," said Greatrex. And he should be. He trains the horse.

These days they call it banter. It used to be slagging and if you're going to give it you have to be able to take it. Jennings and Walsh are masters of the art and their quick wit and depth of knowledge makes them a formidable double act and great value at this type of event.

Paddy Power isn't far off the pace. "Monalee is my nap of the week by a mile," he offered, before tempering his confidence with the self-deprecating assertion that he is "the worst judge since Pontius Pilate." And when he was asked later about the price for L'ami Serge in the Stayers' Hurdle, he replied "10/1 each-way . . . I mean, just 10/1, I'm trying to get the hang of this odds thing."

Kirwan announced at the start of the second half that he'd had a request from someone looking for a lift from Holyhead to Cheltenham on Monday. "Ruby was just telling me," said Power, "that he gets very lonely on that drive." "I don't think Ruby would be great company on the Monday of Cheltenham," offered Jennings. "Or any other day," added Power.

They were ganging up on the champion now. Queueing up behind him to lay down a challenge as we approached the final straight.

On Our Duke's chances in the Gold Cup, Jennings said the horse reminded him of a mini-Denman. The champion jockey saw his chance, raised his eyes to heaven and invoked a tone of incredulity as he not only dismissed the suggestion, but left us in no doubt that it was one of the most ridiculous things he ever heard. When Greatrex was asked for his view of the race, he began by saying that Might Bite "reminds me of a mini-Kauto Star." "At least I know you're taking the piss," responded Ruby. Jennings took it in good heart. "My mother warned me about people like you."

Walsh gave us a glimpse of the perils of jump racing when talking about how Killultagh Vic's style of jumping might affect his Gold Cup hopes. "When it comes to the first down the back and the third and fourth last, if you get your arse higher than your withers, you're going to end up on your face."

There's a lesson in that for us all.

As the night drew to a close we were able to reflect on horses that will be hard to beat, that might run into a place, some that are expected to fly up the hill, others that are unexposed, have their best days behind them, have questions to answer or nothing left to prove.

Confused? You should be.

Only two sleeps left.

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