Why the Irish yard is the heart of Cheltenham

By David Williams on |

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Action at the Cheltenham Festival
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This morning’s press is brimming with news of bookies nursing their Cheltenham wounds. Well, I’m a bookie and I’m a punter, and yet I must be unique in holding the unwelcome title of being on both of the losing teams. My firm lost a packet, as did every bookie in the land. As a punter — and you’ll have identified this from my so-called tips yesterday — I managed to do my brains.

I was on the wrong Nicky Henderson horse in the first, I was prepared to take on Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle (yeah, that went well) and the handicaps are best unspoken about. Only Douvan and Vroum Vroum Mag stemmed the pain but they were too short to haul me out of trouble.

Moving swiftly on, I was struck by the crowd figures reported here yesterday. Cheltenham recorded record numbers for an opening day and yet the racecourse itself had a wonderful, unhurried feel about it. The concourse improvements they have made here are an unmitigated success. It now genuinely feels like a first-rate course and the facilities complement the natural rural amphitheatre and, of course, the first day of racing.

Sadly but inevitably, some tabloids have led their Cheltenham Festival coverage with some football playing thugs and their entourage disgracing themselves in a private box. They’re silly and it drives me mad that infrequent visitors to our sport will have their opinions influenced by the behaviour of a handful of people. 67,000 other people rubbed along happily and cheerfully — irrespective of birth-right, ethnicity or punting misfortune — yesterday and we all have a duty to dial up that side of what makes Cheltenham so special.

As I parked up earlier this morning, Willie Mullins was supervising his horses in the Irish yard, chewing away happily on some gum and appearing to be wholly untroubled by the mantle of greatness that sits on his shoulders. I reflected on his awesomeness. He has brought 60 horses here this week, few of them can be written off and some have already won; it’s inevitable that more will today.

Ruby Walsh was among the two dozen jockeys strolling around, just another one of the lads, surrounded by a few curious onlookers and a few shivering catering staff keeping themselves warm with a cigarette. Nothing could have been less glamorous, more inconspicuous and, to my mind, more evocative of why we love racing. Even here at the great altar of the game, the beating heart is easy to find. It’s not in the Winners’ Enclosure, it’s certainly not in extortionate hospitality boxes; it’s there in the Irish yard, with the crafty smokers, the farmers and the unfussed, beautiful horses.

Looking ahead to today, I’m ignoring the vibes about Yorkhill, who is being well backed this morning and will keep the faith with Yanworth. The RSA Chase at 2.10 looks a brilliant shoot-out between More Of That and No More Heroes but I’m prepared to risk what’s left of my wallet on Blaklion each-way for Nigel Twiston-Davies. The 2.50 is typically impossible but I’ll take the advice of a press room judge who thinks the 25/1 about Hunters Hoof is a knocking each-way bet.

The Champion Chase itself could yet provide the most thrilling moment of the week as the odds-on Un De Sceaux meets old favourite Sprinter Sacre about whom I have blogged endlessly in the past year. If they come down to the second last together the roar will be off the charts. I’ll probably forget that I’ve backed Felix Yonger each way and cheer on the Sprinter to deliver the story to end all Festival stories.

It’s Budget Day, of course, so Any Currency can be fancied to go well in the Cross Country Chase each-way at 4.10 (yep, I’m getting desperate now), and the penultimate race features Diego Du Charmil who has been the subject of a sustained gamble for Paul Nicholls in recent weeks (I missed the wedding prices, but will take a funeral price).

The Bumper, to round things off, can go the way of Coeur Blimey who would be half the price he is were he in a bigger yard. Mind you, if I’m looking for a result coming to the Bumper, I might as well go and try to hide away in the Irish yard with the furtive farmers and crafty smokers.

Good luck today; my bank manager disagrees but it’s still a great day to be alive.

Top image: Cheltenham racecourse by Kate via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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