Donn's Articles » Cheltenhams past

Cheltenhams past

Most painful bets? There have been plenty. There was Tied Cottage in the 1979 Gold Cup for starters. There is a time in every racing fan’s life when racing began as a live entity for them, a point in time before which racing is a part of history, just like the Easter Rising is a part of history, something that you read about and try to imagine what it must have been like, just like when you look at the old photos of the GPO, O’Connell street with rubble all over the place and Dr Quirke’s Good Time Emporium nowhere to be seen.

Glencaraig Lady and Captain Christy and Davy Lad are all part of that history for me. I do remember Davy Lad, but that was in the 1977 Grand National, not the 1977 Gold Cup, I’m not sure I even knew that he had won the Gold Cup, just that he was an Irish horse and he was well fancied to beat Red Rum in the Grand National. But nobody ever really beat Red Rum in the Grand National.

Midnight Court in 1978 is somewhere on the cusp, but still part of history, my reality confined to photos of him and Johnny Francome’s goldilocks protruding from beneath his helmet. But Tied Cottage was real. And how. My grandfather was my betting agent in those days, 10p win Tied Cottage written out the night before and sleight-of-handed to him under the table away from my dad’s suspicious gaze. To beat Alverton? Yes, to beat Alverton.

I remember watching the race in my friend’s house on our way home from school, all gathered around the television, all screaming for the Irish horse, my dad and my friend’s dad among the supporters. Would he have beaten Alverton if he hadn’t come down? I convinced myself that he would have anyway, just to make myself feel worse and to make it more difficult for me to conceal my disappointment from my dad on the way home. I didn’t know your sense of patriotism ran so deeply, son.

There were the bets that should have been struck and weren’t, like Danoli and Istabraq (x4) – I think I’m the only person still living in Ireland who never backed Istabraq – and Florida Pearl and Ventana Canyon, one that got away for sure. There was also the Dawn Run Gold Cup, known in our family now as the down-the-back-of-the-chemistry-lab Gold Cup, and how we thought we would get away with a luminous yellow transistor radio pressed to our ear while Brother Finn extolled the virtues of the Archimedes Bucket is beyond me now looking back.

Maybe we weren’t as bright as we thought we were in those days, or maybe we thought that it was going to be the class in which we would attempt to distil alcohol again. (The school magazine still has the photos of the first attempt.) Unusually, there was a happy ending to this one. The mare began to get up, the mare got up, and detention was averted as Brother Finn wallowed in the win. (Now he was a patriot.)

Good bets? There were a few. There was the Kicking King bet, the genesis of which was in the winner’s enclosure after the 2004 Arkle. As the crowds hoarded around Well Chief and Martin Pipe and AP McCoy and David Johnson, a quiet word was had with Tom Taaffe who was in that in-between state of disapfaction that enshrouds those who stand in the spot under the 2, not the 1, in Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure. Champion Chase next year Tom? Nope, Gold Cup please God.

Kicking King was 40/1 for the Gold Cup before he ran in the National Lottery Chase at Gowran Park in October 2004 (too big to ignore), and he was 40/1 after he won it (way too big to ignore). You can’t expect the British bookmakers to be looking at a race at Gowran Park on a Thursday afternoon and thinking that afterwards they are going to have to be adjusting their prices for the Cheltenham Gold Cup five months thence, can you? Well, you couldn’t in 2004.

Of course, his price went through the roller-coaster that goes with winning the King George (6/1) and being ruled out of the race (1000/1) all in the space of a couple of weeks, but we know how this one ends. The shooting stones on Tom Taaffe’s driveway and the resultant reaction by the horse in the adjoining paddock that told the trainer that it was worth taking the chance have been well documented. I don’t think I exhaled once during those six minutes and 42.9 seconds.

War Of Attrition was another one, lucky seam developing here, an improving seven-year-old who had the pace to be a two-miler as a novice yet who had every chance of staying the Gold Cup trip. Another 40/1 shot in October, 15/2 by the time he went to post, and the will-he won’t-he saga just as dramatic as Kicking King’s, with the owner’s Ryanair Chase looming as a constant potential ante post docket scupperer.

Seven-year-olds and the Gold Cup? There’s a thing. Four of the last eight winners were seven-year-olds and the other four were Best Mate (twice), Kauto Star and Denman. There may be something in that. Maybe staying chasers improve so much between six and seven that we can’t really keep up with their rate of progress. The way to train these Gold Cup horses anyway is to race them away before Christmas, then leave them off between January and March, so how are we to estimate by how much the youngsters have improved?

Then there was Barbers Shop last year. Not so clever.

This year? Don’t be surprised if Calgary Bay and Tricky Trickster out-run their respective odds.

© The Irish Field, 27th February 2010