False start for punters... but spirits remain high

HARDY ANNUALS were in plentiful supply at Cheltenham yesterday as the racing and betting extravaganza got under way for 2008. Not in the flower beds, mind, but among the throng of national hunt fans who gathered for their annual splurge.

Hardy they had to be: laughing off Monday’s delayed, diverted and cancelled flights, they arrived at the racecourse yesterday refreshed, fed and watered, and were then met with rain, wind and biting, biting cold.

Annuals too, with a sizeable majority of the estimated 16,000 Irish punters in attendance back for more after previous trouncings, and the occasional windfall, from years gone by.

But whether they were tired, or cold, or wet, or even broke (already), they were still in good spirits.

National hunt racing is a broad church, and those with interests in other sports are always welcome. Liam O’Sullivan from Kerry arrived armed with a message for his rugby-coaching namesake: “Eddie O’Sullivan needs to be sacked,” he said with a nod towards the weekend’s Twickenham showdown. “He needs to be put out to grass.” A fellow O’Sullivan alright, but we assumed he was no relation.

Liam’s friend Tony Moten from Roscrea elaborated: “We need a good Munster coach in there. Come on Munster!” Trying to back winners was a minor detail.

Also basing themselves outside the main action were broadcasters Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Micheál Ó Sé and Mairtin Ó Ciardha. They stayed in Stroud, but the change of scenery didn’t have much effect on their fortunes.

“Not good,” said Ó Muircheartaigh when asked how their luck was. We understand things picked up for the group in the last couple of races.

Ó Sé thought it might be best to keep the powder dry for a while. “Go easy now,” he advised. “There’s still the rest of the week to go.”

Top jockey Mick Fitzgerald arrived with his mother, Alice, and received a good luck kiss before departing to get ready for the afternoon’s business. Originally from Wexford but now living in Kilmallock, Ms Fitzgerald is a regular at the big-race meetings when Mick is on board a fancied few.

“I’ll have to get some few bob,” she said. Mick was on board Khyber Kim in the opener and Alice revealed beforehand that hopes were high, although the jockey himself was disappointed not to be able to ride Binocular. “I’m here to support him anyway, hopefully he’ll have a good few days.”

A Cheltenham meeting without JP McManus would, to paraphrase Christy Ring talking about hurling without a strong Tipperary team, only be half-clothed — and the famous — or infamous if you’re a bookie — businessman and gambler duly took his place among the throngs yesterday.

Walking through the crowds, JP offered a small crumb of comfort to any terror-stricken bookmakers who get the heebie-jeebies at the sight of him:

“I don’t know if I’ll have a bet at all,” he laughed when asked for his nap of the meeting.

Whether he stuck to that, as Captain Cee Bee and Binocular in the familiar green and orange hoops led the field home in the opener, is another story. Not to mention the McManus-owned Garde Champetre winning the fifth.

Channel 4 pundit John McCririck spent the day advising punters to back JP’s Don’t Push It in tomorrow’s Racing Post Plate, but the owner himself was a bit more circumspect. The horse will “hopefully” put up a good show, was all he’d reveal, but whether he’ll launch an onslaught on the bookies come showtime remains open to question.

Strolling alongside was fellow financier Dermot Desmond, who was unable to shed much light on the week. “I’ll follow JP, whatever he does I’ll do,” he confessed.

A group from Youghal — Eric Ryan, William Kelly, Michael Higgins, Dan and John Dineen, and Diarmuid Coffey — were all Noland supporters. “He’s the banker.”

Unfortunately, the horse didn’t justify that faith.

No newcomers were they as they found their favoured haunts around the rolling course. “We come every year,” said Eric. “It wouldn’t go on without us,” added Michael. “They’d hardly throw in the ball otherwise, would they?” Hardly. Based in nearby Stratford, they make a point of leaving Shakespeare’s hometown as early as possible on racing mornings. “A nice place, but a bit quiet,” explained John.

Now something of a Cheltenham veteran, Hector Ó hEochagáin was in Prestbury Park to try and earn a few shillings for Temple Street Children’s Hospital, broadcasting his charity bets to the Gerry Ryan Show.

His attempt to spread the Gaeilge didn’t achieve much success, but he managed to throw in a cúpla focal here and there while chatting to the Carberry’s outside Horse Racing Ireland’s box.

The translation was a bit lost but unfortunately we got a bit too much information about his journey across the Irish Sea on Monday. “The flight was full of testosterone, Racing Posts and farts,” he told a bemused Irish Examiner.

A master of PR, Paddy Power (did he change his name by deed poll a few years ago?) of bookmaking giant, Paddy Power, somehow persuaded Hector to pull on a company T-shirt for some publicity photos, along with nervous jockeys Paul Carberry, Davy Russell and Andrew McNamara.

“River Liane I suppose, but it’s not very original,” he said when asked for his bet of the day. “If you’d asked me a week ago I’d have given a winner for every race, but now I’m not so confident.” As it turned out, his lack of confidence was well placed.

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