Tuesday 20 March 2018

Privileged to have ringside seat at 'centre of the world'

Gerry Nelson - In the Stables

I still find it slightly surreal that I will be right in the middle of next week's Cheltenham Festival mayhem. After all, it was only in November that I attended my first National Hunt meeting at Down Royal. That was the first day of filming for the five-part 'The Irish Road To Cheltenham' series that began on RTE 1 last night.

As a documentary maker with 15 years' experience, I've never encountered anything so vibrant or compelling as the existence of the jockeys that we follow – Davy Russell, Andrew McNamara, Nina Carberry, Andrew Lynch and Robbie Power.

Maybe it's the live element that makes it so exciting, but I'm mesmerised by it all.

In all my years of directing, I have never not known the end of the story before I began editing. Right now, though, I am in the process of editing the fourth programme, yet the real drama will only hit a crescendo in the Cotswolds next week.

It's hard to put your finger on why Irish people have such an affinity with horses and Cheltenham, but there is no denying that it is there. Maybe it's in our DNA.

I remember going to Down Royal and thinking, yeah, I get this, despite being a city boy who knew little about racing. Horses are rooted in our past, and I suppose the Cheltenham obsession began with Arkle putting one over on the old enemy, as it were.

Since then, if there are Irish winners at the Festival, it's on the 9.0 news – before the sports bulletin. Jockeys epitomise that sense of Cheltenham being the centre of the world for four days.

They spend their lives looking for a Cheltenham horse, but, at the same time, they are unique examples of lives lived in the moment.

They have a great sense of acceptance of how things are. For example, we started out following the Gold Cup aspirations of three horses – Sir Des Champs, Flemenstar and Hidden Cyclone – and here we are, with only one likely to line out this day week.

But jockeys take these frustrations in their stride every day. To me, they're like gladiators going into battle, ignoring that their bodies are held together with steel rods, that they have no spleens – find me one who does – or that they haven't eaten for two days.

On the mornings I accompanied them to the stable yards, I actually had to force feed myself at 5.0, because I knew there would be no stopping for breakfast. To them, it's no big deal, as they can rationalise anything in the quest for winners.

And they are all fascinating characters, none more so than Davy Russell.

When I first spoke with Davy about taking part, he said: "Look, I might shout at you if you get me at the wrong time, but know that I will tear myself up about that later on."

He is just a brutally honest individual, simultaneously stony-faced and conscientious.

There was an incident on Hennessy Gold Cup day at Leopardstown when he was going out to ride Sir Des Champs with the world of expectation on his shoulders.

A kid wanted to say hello, and all of a sudden Davy stopped, turned on his heels and got down on his hunkers to give the kid a bit of time. I just stood there and thought, there are not too many people who would have the humility to do that, at that time.

Seconds later, he was Roy Keane-esque again on Sir Des Champs. Now, Sir Des Champs is tasked with fulfiling Davy's dream of winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup – a fantasy that he used to play out on a pony in his back garden as a 10-year-old.

It is just a sensational prospect, so I feel privileged to have a ringside seat come next week. Here's to happy endings – in Gold Cups and in television.

• For more information on racing in Ireland this weekend check out www.goracing.ie

Irish Independent

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