Wednesday 16 January 2019

Nothing competes with the memories

Cheltenham delivered its usual quota of triumphs and disasters during dominant week for Irish

Keith Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Fergus McDonnell

That's life. To paraphrase the old song, you're riding high in March, shot down in, well, March. Cheltenham's four fantasy-fuelled days of Festival frolics could hardly illustrate that more. Get involved in this game and you can expect to be up and down and over and out. Being able to pick yourself up is the secret of success.

No one knows that better than Ruby Walsh. After winning a four-month battle to recover from a broken leg suffered in a fall last November, The Prince of Prestbury Park took his place at the head of affairs with two Tuesday winners.

‘The famed Cheltenham roar does not disappoint. Some jockeys say they don’t hear it, but that is probably because they’re not listening’. Photo: Gerry Mooney
‘The famed Cheltenham roar does not disappoint. Some jockeys say they don’t hear it, but that is probably because they’re not listening’. Photo: Gerry Mooney

They say he knows every blade of grass around this place and as the formalities of the second race on Wednesday were being wrapped up, he had become a little too familiar with some of the ones that grow on the landing side of the second last fence.

A fog of uncertainty still surrounds the nature of the injury and the time it will require to heal, but one thing is crystal clear: Walsh will call on his seemingly bottomless reserves of strength and determination to be back. It's a battle you just know he's going to win.

Monday's Ryanair red-eye to Birmingham carried the unmistakable whiff of early-morning pints and unbridled optimism. Your average punter, in purely financial terms, is a loser. It's as stark as that. But when you factor in the pleasure they get from following their favourite horses, from pitting their wits against a blizzard of variables to try to solve each race's apparently impenetrable puzzle, you will see that there's much more to it than simple profit and loss. And then there's the hope that this will be the week when they find the answers and break the bookies.

The runners and riders are closely connected to the throngs who marvel at their success and wince at their failures. Down at the start for Tuesday's opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the famed Cheltenham roar does not disappoint. Some jockeys say they don't hear it, but that is probably because they're not listening.

They certainly couldn't miss the second roar - the one that starts as a rumble in the Princess Royal Stand as the field approaches the top of the hill and follows them as they swing left away from the Main Grandstand. The sound tracks them like a wave as they pass the Best Mate Enclosure, with its twin stands named after Dawn Run and Desert Orchid, and pushes them on towards the back straight.

And it's there again when they round the home turn, those holding tickets on the main contenders leading with their throats, but everyone is caught up in the excitement and happy to join in. Barely four minutes have passed since flag-fall and the Festival's first dreams have come true or been shattered.

Lisa O'Neill has seen both sides of that particular coin. Last year she won her first Festival race aboard Tiger Roll in the National Hunt Challenge Cup. On Tuesday, she went to post in the same race on the highly-fancied Mossback. This time she came back alone.

While Patrick Mullins was driving Rathvinden to a skin-of-his-teeth success over Ms Parfois, on the far side of the track they were putting the screens up to shield Mossback's final moments from the viewing public.

Death is a fact of life in racing, but that doesn't make it any easier to handle. The connection between horse and rider is obvious, and hard to deal with when its broken forever. "It was great last year but that just shows you the highs and lows of racing," said O'Neill. "It was such a high here last year and such a low this year, losing Mossback.

"You have to jump to win, but we turned a somersault at the back of the fence, so, not ideal. That's just part and parcel of racing. He took off perfectly fine but he didn't get his landing gear. Unfortunately, we lost him so he won't be coming home with us.

"It's hard coming back in, not just me, it's hard on everyone in the team but you have to take what you get. You go home and it's like any race meeting whether it's on the big stage here at Cheltenham or Down Royal on St Patrick's Day or Ballinrobe during the summer, when you lose one you're coming home with an empty stall on the lorry, no horse to put the sheet on and an empty box at home that has to be filled up again."

O'Neill recorded her first Festival winner on Gordon Elliott's Tiger Roll last year and she was already connected to her friend and workmate Keith Donoghue before he followed in her footsteps by guiding the same horse to victory in Wednesday's cross-country chase.

The 24-year-old has struggled with his weight and missed the chance to break his duck here last year when he could have partnered Labaik in the Supreme.

"I watched it in Swan's of Skryne with Paul Carberry and David Burke. As soon as he crossed the line, I just walked out and went home. Look it, I was very down. Deep down, I was delighted for the horse. I'd put a lot of work into the horse. I knew the ability he had. I told so many people weeks before that he'd win the Supreme, even though he was 50 or 66/1. I knew he could do it. While I was delighted for the horse, it was very hard to take.

"I've wanted to give up more times. It's very hard on the head, doing what I'm doing with the weight. I've been in Gordon's since I was 14 and if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be in this position."

A Gaelic footballer with Skryne, there's a connection from there, too, to Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny. "Paddy O'Rourke, the former Meath goalkeeper, is one of my best friends and we'd be down in Paul Carberry's, riding horses and having the crack. Kilkenny got on to Paddy and said he'd love to get involved with horses. He's mad into racing. I got talking to him through that and we brought him down to Paul Carberry's, got him up riding horses and that. He loved that. He's a sound fella.

"Running clears the head as well. I do a lot of long-distance running on my own, but with Kilkenny I do sprints and all that stuff they do with the Dublin team."

Few connections are as tight as family ties. The wind was up on Wednesday morning, but no one could have foreseen the storm that was gathering. Eddie Jones, in hot water for lightly throwing heavy words about Wales and Ireland at a business talk last July, apologises unreservedly. Jamie Carragher may have said a quiet 'thank you' for distracting attention from gobgate.

But all that is a sorry sideshow to the events in the shadow of Cleeve Hill. Hamlet was about to lose its Prince.

The RSA Chase, the second race on the card, turned into a shoot-out between the two leading players in the market, Presenting Percy and Monalee, but the leading man was in third on a tiring Al Boum Photo before tumbling to ground that would certainly not have felt as soft as the going described.

Even as the principals battled it out up the straight, concern was growing that all was not well with the champion.

After winning the Mares' Hurdle the previous day aboard Benie Des Dieux, an emotional Walsh spoke of his battle to regain his fitness in time to ride at Cheltenham: "I'm sure I was a nightmare to live with - an average dad and a horrible husband."

Later in the day, after his sister Katie had shown typical Walsh timing to promote Relegate from the back of the field to first past the post in the Champion Bumper, emotions were running high in the parade ring.

Katie, along with their father Ted, had helped her brother to make his way to the ambulance. Talking about the race she had just won came easily, but when asked about Ruby she struggled to hold back the tears.

"I'm torn a bit; you know, I'm a very emotional person anyway. I really appreciate days like this, it's fantastic but in the back of my mind I feel sorry for Ruby. But, you know, once I got around the corner, behind the screens, he was up and he was talking and that's the main thing for me. It's not as bad as it first seemed I think so he'll be back. It could be an awful lot worse I know."

Willie Mullins lightened the mood a little when revealing another connection. "Katie actually sold me the second horse. She sold it to me and then she goes and beats him. She had this horse as a point-to-pointer, she bought it herself, sold it and he'll be a nice horse in the future for us too."

Michael O'Leary is standing in the parade ring on Thursday, his eyes fixed on the big screen. His arms are crossed, his legs are crossed, his glasses perched, as usual, on top of his head.

Glenloe and Delta Work go head to head, neck and neck up the hill, both straining for the line, Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty doing everything in their considerable power to get their mount there first.

As they flash past the post, no one is prepared to call it except for one young lad, of about eight or nine, in a sharp suit, who tugs at O'Leary's sleeve and announces confidently: "You won."

"What's your name?"


"I like your suit."

Russell and Geraghty exchange words as they turn their horses at the top of the track. The winner is required to wait there to do a TV interview while all the other jockeys take their mounts back down past the grandstand, straining to watch the closing stages being replayed on the giant screen. Seeking clues or confirmation as to where it all went wrong.

But Geraghty and Russell don't know who should stay and who should go. It's that close.

Soon after, O'Leary has reason to like the kid's keen eye as well as his suit and allows himself a little whoop of delight. Frankie made the right call and Russell is heading for the winner's enclosure for the first time on Thursday, but not the last.

In the very next race, Russell brings the Gigginstown colours home first again, this time in the Ryanair Chase, a race which O'Leary had reflected earlier in the day that he "couldn't win". And Russell completes his treble on The Storyteller in the fifth race. This is one of the good days that you take because there is no shortage of bad ones.

It's a good day too for Mullins, who records his 61st winner of the Festival - a new record - when Laurina skates home under Paul Townend. It would have been another for Ruby Walsh but he was enduring one of the bad days that you have to take as well. Mullins seemed surprised to learn that he had become the all-time leading trainer of Festival winners, but had an interesting take on why this has become possible for a trainer based on this side of the Irish Sea.

"Good horses are rewarded in Ireland, they don't have to go handicapping. It's totally down to the HRI programme, race planning and the prize money that they give to good horses in Ireland. English owners are realising that they can buy a good horse to be a good horse and have races to run him in, whereas in England a lot of the novices have to run in a handicap to win prize money and you leave a lot of good horses behind you doing that. Our programme is better I think and it's reflected in the results this week."

For Mullins to saddle seven winners but not take home the leading trainer title is almost unthinkable, and yet that is what happened. Gordon Elliott's eight successes saw him pip the Closutton handler for the second year in succession. The connection between the pair and their Titanic tussles is Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud.

If Mullins was still training O'Leary's horses, he would have two more leading trainer titles to his name. But he's not. Elliott now looks after a good number of them and he has made the most of the opportunity to cement his place as something more than the heir apparent.

Family ties were very much to the fore again on Friday when Bridget Andrews steered 33/1 shot Mohaayed home in the County Hurdle, beating, among others, her boyfriend Harry Skelton, both of them riding horses trained by Harry's brother Dan.

"The girls have shown this week that they're as good as the men when they're given the chances," said Harry afterwards. "I think it's about time we stopped talking about lady jockeys and just called them jockeys," added Dan.

But just 'jockey' doesn't do justice to Harriet Tucker. Many riders will go through their entire careers without tasting Festival success, but in just her second ride under rules, Tucker won the Foxhunters' Chase in remarkable style.

"My shoulder sometimes half dislocates when I reach it too high," she explained. "It happened when I was coming to the second last. I couldn't push it back in so I couldn't slap him down the shoulder. I was just pushing and screaming and praying that no one would come and beat me."

Only half dislocates? And there was us thinking it was something serious.

So the Festival races are run again for another year. The destination has been decided of 28 sets of trophies, cups, plates, pieces of glass and whatever other tokens are handed out on the presentation podium. They are all nice to have, no doubt, but can't match the sense of achievement breeders, owners, trainers, stable hands and jockeys will take away.

And the memories. Nothing can compete with the memories.

The punters have gone their separate ways too, their own memories packed away to be recounted when the evenings start to close in again next autumn and plans are set in place to return to this great cathedral for another bout of calculated analysis and blind hope.

Ruby Walsh reflected before battle commenced that all he wanted from Cheltenham 2018 was "to ride a winner and come home on the flight I'm booked to come home on." He'd probably take only getting the first part of that wish over only getting the second part.

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