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The turf

The turf: Irish hopes

Robin Oakley surveys The Turf

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

Life certainly had its moments at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting. Emma Lavelle’s Tocca Ferro had impressed many on his seasonal return at Ascot and looks set for a rewarding future after his victory in the intermediate hurdle showed an increasing professionalism. Then there was the double with Sarde and Regal Approach for Kim Bailey, who has remained amiable through some cruel dips in fortune since his Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winning days and who is now at last back in the form of old…

Sarde was handled ably by stable amateur Charlie Greene, but Regal Approach was given a true professional’s ride by Sean Quinlan whose 19 winners in the season to that point had all been for the Bailey yard. The talented rider, long associated with Richard Phillips, is coming well through that tricky period that faces all riders after they have ridden out their conditional’s allowance.

The most memorable Newbury moment for me, though, came when an elegant lady stepped into the lift and commanded throatily, ‘Take me anywhere you want to go.’ Where was she when I was 20? At this stage in life, as I later assured Mrs Oakley, I got out at the fifth and fled for the security of the Press Room and a warming chili con carne to steady my nerves.

I had hoped for more excitement of a strictly equine nature at Sandown’s Tingle Creek meeting last Saturday until it fell victim to the weather. Before she knew of the cancellation, Mrs Oakley had soared effortlessly off the Richter scale of Brownie points by insisting, ‘Of course you must go.’ That despite the fact that we had moved house to the Chilterns the day before Tingle Creek Day and that there were still some 50 boxes to unpack, including those containing every copy of The Spectator since the mid-1960s and a fair old racing library. Although it is just possible that there might have been a dastardly plot afoot to slim down the pile in my absence…

A couple of Mrs Oakley’s swimming-pool chums are disappointed I have included several Irish horses in this season’s Twelve to Follow, but I remain unrepentant. Given the current state of Ireland’s economy, Irish trainers will be desperate to plunder everything they can this side of the water and, if the horses selected are as good as I believe them to be, then they will be run regularly in Britain, hopefully at the Cheltenham Festival.

Less racing has meant more time for research on my history of the Cheltenham Festival, and the statistics for that event are illuminating. The tallies are compiled on the basis of where a horse is trained. Thus the Gold Cup victory for Imperial Call, trained by a patrician Old Etonian who had served in the Guards, went down on the slate as one for Ireland because the courageous Fergie Sutherland had moved from Newmarket to his mother’s estate in Ireland. Horses trained at Jackdaw’s Castle, Temple Guiting are cheered home by Gloucestershire folk as ‘English’ successes from just up the road, although the establishment is owned by J.P. McManus and the horses, many owned by JP, are trained by Jonjo O’Neill, a man whom no one could hear for a minute without being clear about his Emerald Isle origins.

According to the convention we use, seven of the 26 winners at the 2010 Festival were ‘Irish victories’, that is they were horses trained in Ireland. But what is also worth noting is that 15 of those 26 winners were bred in Ireland and 20 of the 26 races were won by Irish-born jockeys.

Though Irish fortunes have varied over the years, there was in 2006 a record haul of ten Irish victories. For the first time there was an Irish-trained 1–2–3 that year in the Gold Cup. The first four home in the Champion Hurdle were trained in Ireland, as was the winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

What cannot be denied is that Ireland supplies a vital part of the Festival appeal. As John Scully put it in his Them and Us, a study of the Anglo–Irish rivalry over the years, ‘When they bet on an Irish horse at Cheltenham, Irish fans are betting on national property, investing emotional as well as tangible currency.’

Even the Irish Church plays its part. The late Father Sean Breen, who used to offer tips from his pulpit in Ballymore, once declared that Cheltenham was a checklist for the Irish, arguing that if your friends didn’t turn up at Prestbury Park on the right day they must either be ill or dead. He would hold services in Cheltenham publicly seeking the Almighty’s blessing for the efforts of the Irish horses, although his congregation did hear him concede one year, ‘I know it’s difficult for you, Lord, when we have so many runners.’ But divine inspiration doesn’t always work. The first and only tip I received from an Irish priest encountered in the Festival Tote queue fell at the first.

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