The first Sunday of September. 1995. Croke Park. Loughnane had re-carved a place for Clare in hurling history and there, watching from the stands, was a proud gaggle of young Cork hurlers, nurturing the minor medal they’d snatched from under Kilkenny noses when many of the pitch invaders were still draining the last of their pre-match pints.
Among the medalled teenagers were Donal Óg Cusack, Joe Deane, Timmy McCarthy and Sean Óg Ó hAilpín.
You could also be excused if the FA Youth Cup final of three years earlier again doesn’t instantly ring a bell in the old memory banks. Manchester United easily dispatched Crystal Palace and, from a remove of almost 20 years, that’s not very surprising. That particular red generation included Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Nicky Butt, while Robbie Savage and the Neville brothers often togged out for the team too.
Which is one of the more fascinating aspects of sport watching: a wistful glance in the rear view mirror and the realisation that you’d witnessed an event that was to prove emblematically significant to the future of a sport, but you just didn’t know it at the time.
The Champion Bumper at Cheltenham on Wednesday could well be another such event.
Although it is blended deep into the mix of a festival containing eleven grade one contests, no other race has the capacity to excite the imagination and sense of anticipation. It’s uniquely exciting to watch the first baby steps of unpolished diamonds and wonder which of them will glitter on the National Hunt racing scene for years to come.
A flat race at the festival had been long resisted by the British hosts (at that time, they didn’t really ‘get’ bumpers), but the race has thrown up hordes of subsequent winners since it was first run in 1992.
It has yet to produce the winner of a Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle but some day it most certainly will and there is no reason that that day cannot be this Wednesday.
Three winners have returned to win at the festival the following year: Monsignor, Florida Pearl and Montelado, who remains the only horse to win consecutive races at the festival, when he followed up his win in the bumper in 1992 by winning the first race of 1993, the Supreme Novice Hurdle. Last year’s winner, Cue Card, is a short-priced favourite to replicate Montelado’s double, although the two races are no longer sequential.
Horses beaten in the bumper also send a strong signal to the future, and subsequent festival winners such as French Holly, Iris’s Gift, Thisthatandtother, Rhinestone Cowboy, Wichita Lineman, Albertas Run, Fiveforthree and Trabolgan have all been beaten in their year.
It’s notoriously difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in advance of the race and Wednesday’s field of two dozen unexposed young horses, most with trainers who hyperventilate at the thought of their cards drifting more than half an inch from their chests, is no different.
Trends can be a good place to start any analysis and in the bumper, where form is a scarce commodity, they are crucially important. Some, of course, are blindingly obvious.
Ireland is mother to the bumper and we’ve had 14 victories in the 18 renewals to date, with Willie Mullins tending to win the race about every other year since he first struck with Wither Or Which in 1996.
Other trends are equally instructive. The winner will mostly likely have won last time out in a bumper of more than fourteen runners (16/18), will be a-five year old (14/18), and will be quoted in the top half dozen in the betting (14/18). And, if you decide to focus only on runners from Closutton, all but one of Willie Mullins’ six winners has been a once-raced five-year-old.
The Mullins conundrum is always a nightmare to solve and, this year, two of his three entries fit that profile. Allure of Illusion and Lord Gale are once-raced five-year-olds that won last time out, while Tusa Eire may have raced twice but he too is a five-year-old that won on his most recent start.
Allure of Illusion has almost the exact profile of one of his trainer’s previous winners, Joe Cullen, and, as a brother to the high-class Blackstairmountain, he is bred for the job. He could be the answer to the annual search for The Willie One.
The British challenge seems to be growing in strength every year and Cue Card’s victory in 2010 may have presaged a challenge to the supremacy of Irish runners in the race. Many of the home defenders also tick all the trend boxes.
Cheltenian was bought by Philip Hobbs from Liz Doyle’s Wexford stable after a promising debut at Punchestown and he hosed up at Kempton, beating a subsequent easy winner, in his only start for his new stable. Knight Pass, from the increasingly prominent stable of Warren Greatrex, is unbeaten in two and has looked impressive. Dual winner Ericht is reportedly flying at home for Nicky Henderson and others such as Fingal Bay and Felix Younger also fit the profile.
But that’s the thing about the bumper — enjoyment is strongest until the tapes rise and hope at last collides with reality. Connections must come to terms that their treasured little Paul Scholes was really Robbie Savage all along.
But we’re not there yet. There are still a few days of two dozen possibilities and even after Wednesday the truth will come dropping slow. About ten years should do it.