For me there was never a comedian to match Ireland’s Dave Allen, perched on his stool fastidiously flicking imaginary cigarette ash off his suit, drawing out a story with a sip of whisky and flaying with the laughter he provoked all those who set themselves in authority over us, from mothers superior to prime ministers. My favourite Allen story was the one about the two drunks in a pub who leave at ten-minute intervals, making their way home across a churchyard. The first one falls into a freshly dug grave. He tries a few jumps at the slippery sides, a few shouts for help, then settles down in a corner to sleep off his excess. Soon the second drunk, tripping over a tombstone, lands in the other end of the same grave. He, too, scrabbles ineffectually at the sides and calls unavailingly for help. At which point the first drunk wakes and sonorously declares, ‘You’ll never get out of here, mate.’ ‘But he did,’ Dave Allen used to say. ‘He did.’
How sad that he should have died just ahead of Cheltenham Festival week, when the Irish arrive in thousands for war by another name. Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said, ‘Football’s not just a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that.’ For racing in Festival week multiply that by ten. You will never see such a parade of national identity as when an Irish runner has stormed up the famous hill finish in first place. And I never seem to meet an Irishman who, whatever the betting pit he’s fallen into, hasn’t leapt free by the end of the week.
By the time most read this column, these days sadly on a fortnightly basis, the serious business of the Festival will be done. Know only that, if Hardy Eustace has failed to win the Champion Hurdle, Azertyuiop has been seen off by Moscow Flyer in the Champion Chase and Richard Johnson has failed to emerge as top jockey at the meeting, then Mrs Oakley will be buying her clothes off a barrow for a while and The Cat will be forced to raid the neighbour’s pond for goldfish instead of lapping Tesco’s Finest tuna.
I wonder how successful Cheltenham bookies will have been in checking the notes they’ve been offered after the British and Irish governments have insisted that it was the Provisional IRA who were responsible for the £26 million heist on the Northern Bank in Ulster last December. The IRA have, of course, denied it. But when I was in Belfast and Dublin the other day, the word on the street was that ‘ten out of nine people don’t believe the Provos’. Dave Allen would have liked that.
There were few Cheltenham entrants on view at Sandown last Saturday, though Martin Pipe’s Medison put himself in line for a £60,000 bonus if he wins again at Cheltenham after collecting the Sunderlands Imperial Cup handicap hurdle with insouciant ease. Timmy Murphy turned round in the saddle to see if anyone was prepared to make a race of it after the last and found no takers.
There were, however, some first-rate contests, as when Howard Johnson’s Julius Caesar touched off Billyvoddan, on whom I had been relying for some Cheltenham stake money, in the novices’ handicap hurdle. Ruby Walsh rode a peach of a race, you could call it a Timmy Murphy special, to bring the enigmatic Inca Trail home the winner of the Sunderlands Handicap Chase. On a horse who has not always seemed to relish a battle, he delayed his challenge until well after the last fence to deny Howard Johnson’s Boy’s Hurrah, twice a course winner and my banker of the day. Inca Trail is a full brother to Best Mate, denied the chance of going for a fourth Cheltenham Gold Cup by a burst blood vessel.
His delighted trainer Paul Nicholls said that the horse won’t appear again now before the Betfred Gold Cup (the old Whitbread for purists) at Sandown in April. ‘It’s taken a while to work him out,’ he said, ‘but that’s the only way to ride him.’ The successful rider simply said that he was relieved when Inca Trail responded to his urgings after the last. ‘When it works you’re a hero. When it doesn’t you’re a fool.’ No wonder Ruby is prematurely grey.
Best moment of the day for me, though, was the northern victory of Funny Times in the EBF/Doncaster Bloodstock Sales Mares Only Flat Race Final. Funny Times is a daughter of the magnificent grey Silver Patriarch whom John Dunlop trained to win the St Leger and the Coronation Cup. Silver Patriarch was beaten just a short head by Benny the Dip in the Derby and now stands at the National Stud.
Trainer Nicky Richards was overseeing five horses at Ayr, but the proud owner–breeder of Funny Times, Edward Briggs, was there to see her success. ‘She just left them, didn’t she?’ he exulted, recalling how he had been there to help her dam, who is in foal again to Silver Patriarch, give birth to the winner. He has been breeding from the same family for 30 years, and all his horses have been trained by the Richards, first Gordon and now his son Nicky. Mr Briggs’s Better Times Ahead, one of Gordon Richards last winners, escorted ‘the Boss’ to his grave and also provided Nicky’s first success. A retired farmer, now 82, Mr Briggs grinned: ‘The first 80 years are the best. I’m a touch worried about the next 20.’ Those are the people you really like to see winning races.