Monday 20 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Savour it while we're above the turf - the 12 stages of a beautiful week

Sizing John jumps the last just behind Djakadam
Sizing John jumps the last just behind Djakadam
Un De Sceaux, with Ruby Walsh in the saddle, jumps the last ahead of eventual winner Fox Norton and God’s Own during the BoyleSport Champion Steeplechase at Punchestown.. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney reflects on the week that was at Punchestown.

1. Punchestown Gold Cup

They come over the second last three in a line. When Coneygree clips that one it seems to be between Djakadam and Sizing John. And it's Djakadam, the perennial bridesmaid, who's getting the best of it. Even after making a mistake at the last he still seems to be moving with much more fluency than Sizing John. But on the run-in, Sizing John rallies and edges closer - until in the last hundred yards they're locked together. The battle is almost unbearably close, every sinew of horse and jockey seems stretched to the maximum. You can feel your own limbs tighten in sympathy.

I'm down right at the winning post and as the two horses thunder past I can't separate them. I turn to a woman standing beside me, "Who won it? Who won it?"

"I know Outlander didn't," she says and shows me her losing docket. Here comes the PA. "The winner . . . number six." Sizing John. There is a roar from the favourite's supporters but then a kind of awed lull as 20,000 people ask themselves and others: What did we just see? Was that one of the greatest races ever?

It certainly confirmed the greatness of two Gold Cup winners: Sizing John - who prevailed through sheer guts while not firing on all cylinders and after losing a shoe, and Coneygree - who although running for just the second time in 18 months, showed the same kind of courage by setting a blazing pace from the start before coming up just short. And splitting them, Djakadam - twice runner-up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, three times second in the Punchestown Gold Cup. Always so near, always so far.

Was it great? It was the greatest race at the greatest festival in one of the greatest seasons in the history of Irish National Hunt racing. What more do you want?

2. A Life Well Lived

We got chatting in the bus from Dublin to Punchestown, myself and the Englishman. He enjoyed his racing trips to Ireland. Been all over. Remembered going to night races in Clonmel, going to Cork and having a 16-1 winner thanks to a tip he'd got from a man on the ferry at Tarbert. Went everywhere with his wife, played golf in Jamaica, went on the Orient Express. She was dead three years and he missed her. I should go racing in England. Not just the obvious places. He loved Chester, York was as good as Ascot in his eyes. There were still things he wanted to do. He was coming back for Laytown because he hadn't seen that yet, imagined it would be like nothing else.

The day before he'd found himself at a loose end and taken a bus up to see The Giants Causeway. He'd voted Brexit but he didn't want anything to change between England and Ireland. The friends he'd made here. The birthday party he'd been to in Dublin, 85 people, 83 relations of the birthday boy, the Englishman and his late wife. "I like my Guinness too, though not as much as I used to. Not since I turned 80."

We wished each other luck.

3. Game On

It took just two races for everyone to realise that talk about the contest between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins being practically over was spectacularly ill-founded. As Cilaos Emery and Melon combined for a 1-2 in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle to, in one fell swoop, knock €80,000 off Elliott's €400,000 lead, the vulnerability of the leader against the team Mullins had lined up for the next five days struck home with great force.

No battle for any trainers' title anywhere has caught the imagination quite like this one. All over Punchestown you heard people making the calculations. How much is between them now? How much money does the winner get in the next one? Will it come down to the last day? Will it come down to the last race? You've never seen strain till you've seen a man with a pint in his hand try to subtract 678 from 453.

The question we'd all been asking before that second race was: will Labaik start? The answer was no, the Supreme Novices Hurdle winner stood stock-still with all the obduracy of Enda Kenny clinging to the leadership of Fine Gael. Then he tried to duck out between the rails. Eventually, with everything else gone into the wide blue yonder, Jack Kennedy persuaded Labaik to jog round the track in order to avoid a suspension. An outwardly unabashed Gordon Elliott declared he'd saddle him again for Friday's Champion Hurdle. "If he doesn't start in that, there'll be war, and if he wins it, there'll be war," muttered the Dub to my right as he balled up a betting slip with extreme prejudice.

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Willie Mullins kept in touch with Elliott in the trainer’s title race by completing a double in the two feature races for mares. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

4. The Glamorous Life

I wanted the glamorous grandmother from Mullingar to win. To strike a blow for experience and because I thought her rig-out was very nice (use of the term rig-out may indicate a certain lack of technical knowledge on my part). Ashley the hairstylist from Naas won instead. That first day I couldn't even pick a winner in the Best Dressed Woman contest.

On the other hand this may have been the toughest contest of the week. So many runners and so much quality. Those complicated hats, the colourful, well, rig-outs and a general air of elegance which suggested a malfunctioning time machine had deposited a posse of starlets from the age of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn into this corner of 21st century Kildare.

The only giveaway were the Cavan, Kildare, Meath and Dublin accents - but those were endearing too. This wasn't a 'lovely girls' contest, it was a tribute to the power of couture in helping ordinary people look and, one suspects, feel terrific.

In order to protect myself against any charges of sexism I must reveal that I got dressed up myself. I looked pretty fantastic.

5. Time To Shine

The occasional racing viewer might feel entitled to ask where this Robbie Power dude came out of. He knows Tony McCoy (Godlike, now retired), Ruby Walsh (wins at Cheltenham to background of lads throwing hats in the air), Barry Geraghty, Davy Russell, maybe the young Kerrymen who rides for Elliott. But this Power guy who suddenly seems to be winning every big race going? Is he another wonderkid? No, he's a 35-year-old who, apart from winning the Grand National in 2007, had until this year enjoyed a career of respectable obscurity with, for example, just one win at Cheltenham.

So he wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup this year and then he wins the Irish Grand National and in the big race on day one at Punchestown, the Champion Chase, Power bides his time and brings Fox Norton with a late run to get past Ruby Walsh and the hot favourite Un de Sceaux. The following day it's Power who's on Sizing John in that most memorable of finishes. It's like a parable of the virtues of patience. You could tell the casual fan that Robbie is the son of Captain Con the showjumper, I suppose. But he's entitled to his own billing at this stage.

6. Winner Each Way, Winner Each Way

They camp in front of the stands, shouting the odds, the chalk and boards of another era replaced by a blinking digital display - but the old battered bags with the locks on them that keep the loot safe are still the same. Brian Keenan has come from Roscommon, Mulholland from Galway, there's a man from Listowel, Kelly the Dundalk bookie, whose sign says 'since 1930'.

There's Gerry Woodlock and Richie Gernon and the effervescent Marcella McCoy, and there's Bernard Barry from Dunboyne who fears he may be part of an endangered species. "We're getting squeezed from every side," he says, "and it costs four or five hundred quid to set up for the day so it's getting harder to make money." However, he adds with a gleam in his eye, day one has been a good one for the bookies. Indeed it has, and as I watch Minella Till Dawn, my fancy in the second race on day two, perform as though his name was a prediction of the time he'd finish, my sentimental feelings towards Bernard's trade diminishes somewhat.

But not entirely. The ring bookies are an essential part of the racing experience. And if they are eventually rendered anachronistic by an increasingly virtual world we will all be, as we often are when dealing with the bookies, poorer. With seconds to go before the Punchestown Gold Cup I see a man sprint down to the ring shouting that he wants to get two grand on Djakadam. I wonder if he made it.

7. The Horse and Hound

It seems an odd addition to the action at first. A few red-coated men on horses with a pack of hounds sprinting down the racecourse in front of them. They're from the Waterford Hunt and the announcer tells us the display is to remind us of the roots of steeplechasing.

The sport is called National Hunt for a reason after all, and was essentially an effort to replicate the experience of foxhunting, all that leaping over gates and hedges and ditches, the whole cross country clamour, in a competitive context.

It's good to be reminded of this. Sports need to hang on to their distinctive traditions in a modern world of ever-increasing homogeneity. Punchestown begins with a race for hunters which, with its circuitous route and the banks which need to be negotiated, is very different from the contests which follow. The course itself is held in trust by the Kildare Hunt Club which, in the words of Punchestown Chairman David Mongey, "is in the hands of the men and women of Kildare who have managed to retain the traditions of the past."

We live in an age when a bead has been drawn on field sports. Foxhunting has been banned in England, a centuries-old tradition wiped out with the stroke of a pen, while last year an attempt was made to ban coursing in Ireland and proponents of such a ban also oppose greyhound racing. There are plenty of animal rights advocates who'd like to see horse racing axed too. The Puritan worry that other people are enjoying themselves in the wrong way lives on. But so, in Ireland at least, does the hunt.

8. Not So Fast My Friend

By the end of day one Gordon Elliott's lead has been cut from €400,000 to €260,000. With four days left it's obvious that a continuation of this pattern will hand Mullins the title. However the pendulum looks to have swung again when the utterly unfancied Champagne Classic lands the grade one Daily Mirror Novices Hurdle on Wednesday for Elliott, holding off the challenge of Mullins' powerhouse Penhill by two-and-a-half lengths.

Champagne Classic has already played a fateful role in the Mullins-Elliott rivalry, his win in the Martin Pipe Hurdle late on the last day at Cheltenham giving the Meathman the Leading Trainer title. A bemused Michael O'Leary described him at the time as 'the worst horse we have'. Now he seems to have struck another crucial blow. By the end of the day Elliott has actually stretched his lead a little, to €275,000, and O'Leary admits that the horse may have been a better-value buy than he thought. O'Leary admitting he was wrong about something? Anything can happen at Punchestown.

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Gordon Elliott will get up to 20 horses arising from the shock split between champion owner Gigginstown and champion trainer Willie Mullins, notably Apple’s Jade and Don Poli. Photo: Sportsfile

9. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby

You are Ruby Walsh. You are the best jockey of them all. It is the second day during the biggest festival after Cheltenham, you are riding in big races which will have a crucial impact on the most talked about trainers title race in history and it is all going wrong.

In the Louis Fitzgerald hurdle Paul Townend on C'est Jersey gets out in front and steals a march on everyone - Ruby comes second on the favourite Battleford. Thirty five minutes later Ruby's on another favourite, Penhill, who has his eye wiped by Champagne Classic. And in the big race of the day Robbie Power has a short head to spare on Ruby, who almost always wins from this position. In Thursday's big race, the Ladbrokes Stayers Hurdle, Ruby is again on the favourite Nichols Canyon and loses out by a head to Noel Fehily on English raider Unowhatimeanharry.

This doesn't change the fact that Ruby is the best of them all. But this immensely frustrating period sums up a great and essential truth about horse racing, no matter how good you are, nothing is given easily and nothing comes automatically.

10. People

There's the Roscommon man who tells me, 'Growing up, I did two things - I looked after suck calves and I followed horses,' and that he's 'like a groupie for great horses. I just came here to look at Coneygree because I think he's a great champion'. The GAA man from Clondalkin who reckons the Dubs will be grand once Jonny Cooper returns to the back line and who says, as we watch Michael O'Leary in the parade ring, "They can say what they want but he's a great man. Only for him we'd still be paying 300 quid to fly to London."

The lads from Kerry and the lads from London who spend the trip back to Dublin slagging each other off virulently about Spurs and Chelsea, the encounter concluding with the Kerry lads persuading their new acquaintances the Killarney races has to be their next outing and telling them the best places to go for the crack. The Corkman who spends half an hour haggling to get a fiver knocked off a pair of binoculars in the shopping village, telling the salesman, "I was doing it for a laugh, sure if you can't have a laugh in this life, where are you?" The man who somehow seems to epitomise a vital strain in the Irish character by observing with great glee, as hailstones pour down, "I was here one year when we were making snowballs". Sport is about performers but it's also about people.

11. Manly Love

Champagne Classic's win is greeted by a stunned and somewhat resentful silence. There is hurt in the eyes of the punters. It is one of those results which really hammer home the essentially unfair nature of betting. If horse racing began with the aristocracy, so did betting. It was all very well, I think darkly as another fancy goes down to defeat, for those lads with their 100,000 acres. I consider the possibility of busking to make the fare back to Skibb. Do people still like Fisherman's Blues?

Thank the Lord for Jamie Codd. Having done the trick for me with Enniskillen on the first day he now rewards the gamble on Fayonagh in the Racing Post Grade One Flat Race, which is my final throw of the dice. There is something marvellously calm about Codd. Remember that refusal to panic when Fayonagh got left behind at Cheltenham? This time around he takes no chances at all, gets the horse out in front at the start, keeps out of trouble and eases him clear for as comfortable and tension-free a win as you'll ever see. I may not exactly have fallen in love with Jamie at that moment but I certainly feel like singing a couple of verses of Hopelessly Devoted To You under his window.

"What's the story with that Jamie Codd then," asks another of the Englishmen who seem omnipresent at Punchestown. "How come he's an amateur when he's better than most of the pros?" Dunno mate. But I've a feeling that for Jamie and me and Fayonagh this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

12. L'Chaim

It is home time for me, though the show continues at Punchestown and Mullins comes back hard at Elliott on Thursday. On the way west I'm thinking of a great painting by the Englishman William Frith entitled Derby Day, a huge seething panorama of the goings on at the Epsom Downs in the mid 19th century.

It strikes me that this idea of a race meeting as a great human festival still holds true today. People come to Punchestown, and the places like it, to bet and walk and talk and eat and drink and laugh and cheer and celebrate and watch and support and dress up and hang out. It is a community and it is a carnival. As I walk away from it for the last time this year a €50 note slips out of my pocket. Straight away about half a dozen people shout at me, point it out to me, compete to hand it to me. That is what most people are like. They are decent and Punchestown is where they give themselves a little reward for the hard work which keeps their own personal show and that of the folks they love on the road.

A favourite toast of mine is the Jewish one, L'Chaim, which means simply 'to life'. So here's to life and to Punchestown and to all the people who were there last week, to well-travelled Englishmen, well-dressed Westmeath women, winning Kildare women, enthusiastic Roscommon men, parsimonious Cork men, bookies from Meath, Gaels from Dublin, huntsmen from Waterford, bucks from Kerry, geezers from London and everyone who momentarily made it seem that the centre of the universe is located just outside Naas.

To 'The Turf' - and may we be long above it.

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