Donn's Articles » The Irish at Cheltenham

The Irish at Cheltenham

Trying to trace the origins of Ireland’s fixation with the Cheltenham Festival, and Cheltenham’s fixation with the Irish, is a little like trying to pinpoint the beginning of humanity: it has just always been thus.

If you had to pick a starting point, the Garden of Eden of this love affair, it probably would be Vincent O’Brien. Most things in Ireland in the middle of the last century began with Vincent O’Brien. It wasn’t easy to get a horse from Churchtown in County Cork to Cheltenham in 1948. Up on the horse trailer to Limerick City Station, get the train to the North Wall, get the Leinster across to Liverpool, muck in with the cattle and the stevedores on the boat, stay with Gerald Balding in England, get up to Cheltenham four days before the Gold Cup and have a school around the course.

That was the journey that Cottage Rake undertook with Vincent’s brother Phonsie in 1948, and they came home the same way, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup in their swag bag.

The following year Vincent decided that Hatton’s Grace and Castledermot would accompany Cottage Rake on his journey, and he took the unprecedented step of flying the three horses over over instead of allowing them make that arduous journey by land and sea. Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup again, Hatton’s Grace won the Champion Hurdle and Castledermot won the National Hunt Chase.

A smattering of Irish punters were making the trip by 1950, when Cottage Rake won his third Gold Cup and Hatton’s Grace won his second Champion Hurdle, and by 1951, when Hatton’s Grace won his third Champion Hurdle, their numbers had swelled to a point at which this Cheltenham thing was becoming a phenomenon. So by 1952, when Vincent won the first of his 10 Gloucester Hurdles (the modern day Supeme Novices’ Hurdle) with Cockatoo, the journey from all corners of Ireland to the racecourse that nestled beneath Bishop’s Cleeve in the heart of the Cotswolds, was turning into a veritable pilgrimage.

There have been many dizzy highs and many depthly lows for Ireland in the 60 or so years that have followed the legendary doctor’s pioneering quest. Dawn Run’s Gold Cup was a high, as high as the hat that famously flew into the air as Jonjo O’Neill pulled Paddy Mullins’s mare up after crossing the winning line, and draped himself across her neck. It was an act that was probably as much down to sheer exhaustion as it was down to gratitude and affection for a unique racehorse who had dredged the bed of her energy reserves to carry herself and her rider into Cheltenham and racing folklore – still the only horse to have won both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup.

Tied Cottage was a low and a high, and then a low again: low when he fell at the final fence in the 1979 Gold Cup when it wasn’t certain if Alverton would have overhauled him or not, high in the 1980 Gold Cup when, on the rain-softened ground, he jumped and galloped his rivals into oblivion, and low two weeks later when he was disqualified because minute traces of theobromine was found in his sample, and the race awarded to Master Smudge.

Winning trainer Aidan O’Brien being almost extricated from the winner’s enclosure after Istabraq had won the 1997 Sun Alliance Hurdle (mistaken identity) was neither high nor low – it just provided some light relief.

Of course, Istabraq himself was high, high, high and high, but always poignantly so. Istabraq was John Durkan’s horse, the horse whose potential as a hurdler he recognised at John Gosden’s, the horse who was set to be one of the cornerstones of Durkan’s new training operation in Newmarket when he bought him for JP McManus before he was struck down with leukaemia. Even when Aidan O’Brien began to train Istabraq, the plan was for the son of Sadler’s Wells to return to Durkan once he was well enough to start training. Regrettably, that day never arrived.

While Istabraq and Charlie Swan were winning the Sun Alliance Hurdle on 12th March 1997, John Durkan was listening to the commentary from his hospital bed in New York, awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Ten months later, aged 31, he had passed way. His memory lived strong, though, in Istabraq’s four Cheltenham Festival wins, three Champion Hurdles to go with his Sun Alliance Hurdle and, even these days, it is difficult to think of Istabraq without remembering John Durkan.

If Cottage Rake and Hatton’s Grace provided the highs of the 1940s and 1950s, Arkle provided the highs of the 1960s, three of them, the first horse to complete a hat-trick of Gold Cups since Cottage Rake and just the second since Golden Miller. Arkle went higher though. Stratospheric. Arkle went mainstream and gained a personality. Arkle for president. Letters addressed to Arkle, Ireland, got there the next day.

The horses are given their personalities and the people live up to theirs. Cheltenham virgin Tom Foley (“fences like paintings”) became a national hero when he took Danoli, Irish banker, to Prestbury Park in 1994 and came home with the Sun Alliance Hurdle. Michael O’Leary was absolved from the charge for a cup of tea on the flight over when War Of Attrition won the Gold Cup. The late Father Sean Breen said mass during the week for anyone who wanted to say thanks and everyone who wanted to say please. It doesn’t matter from what corner of the country you hail, county borders and prejudices dissolve at the turnstiles, united in accent, united in a common goal. If you have a pound in your pocket and an opinion in your head, you are welcome, welcome everyone.

There have been innumerable other highs, like L’Escargot and Monksfield and Buck House and Davy Lad, all the way through Klairon Davis and Imperial Call and Dorans Pride and Florida Pearl, to Kicking King and Moscow Flyer and Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca: so many that you are reluctant to start pinpointing them, simply because of the multitude that you will inevitably omit.

Last year there were 13 Irish-trained winners, more than in any other year in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. Okay, so there were 27 races last year, more than ever before, but even as a percentage of the total, it was a record, and it was a long way from the whitewash of 1989 – we don’t really talk about 1989 – when not even Galmoy could salvage Irish blushes.

This is a relationship of mutual respect and interdependence. It’s healthy that way. Cheltenham needs the Irish just as much as the Irish need Cheltenham. We’re not really sure how it all started, and we have no idea how or why it works, we just know that it does. Beautifully. And, sure as God, we have no idea when it will end. We’re not certain that it will.

© Close Up Magazine, Spring 2012