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With an air of entitlement that seemed excessive even for St Patrick’s Day, Irish trainers filled the first three places on Friday in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, steeplechasing’s championship race.
The winner was the 15/2 shot War of Attrition, who stayed on up the fearsome finishing hill to come home 2½ lengths clear of the 2005 Grand National winner, Hedgehunter, who could clearly have plodded on for ever. However, the winning jockey, Conor O’Dwyer, 40 next month, had enough nous to be sure that his horse had enough juice left to win.
So the Winner’s Enclosure was filled, as so often has happened at Cheltenham this year, with what seemed like half the population of counties Tipperary and Kildare all hugging each other and doing their best impersonations of being simple bhoys from the bogs who had somehow, miraculously, put one over on the haughty English.
Even more than usual, this was an illusion. “Mouse” Morris, the rumpled-looking, chain-smoking trainer actually represents the peak of Irish aristocracy: his father was Lord Killanin, the head of the International Olympic Committee.
And the official owner, Gigginstown House Stud, turns out to be a nom de guerre for one Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, the low-cost airline.
He was the rebellious-looking figure with the tricolour round his neck which he removed sharpish when the time came to receive the trophy from the Duchess of Cornwall.
O’Leary is not always the most popular businessman in Ireland – “I’m surprised his horse wasn’t an hour late,” murmured someone in the paddock. But he did get a cheer as he left, shouting “free flights for everyone tonight”, although it was not clear how anyone was going to escape the packed car parks in time to take advantage.
And O’Leary was graciousness itself in victory, giving all the credit to Morris and his determination to be patient and run War of Attrition sparingly.
“Mouse was determined to take the slow road,” said O’Leary, “and every decision he’s taken has been proved correct.”
Irish stables took 10 of the 24 races at this year’s Cheltenham, including the three biggest, the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Such a strike rate was once unthinkable.
Morris thinks it’s no fluke. “Do you think the Irish can go on like this?” He replied: “We will as long as the economy in Ireland is good. There was a time when we had to sell all the decent horses.”
Ireland’s capacity to breed top steeplechasers has never been in doubt. Twelve of the 22 Gold Cup runners were Irish-bred.
They also provided the day’s most conspicuous loser, Beef or Salmon, a long-standing under-achiever at Cheltenham, who was backed down to 4/1 favourite for the Gold Cup but finished 11th, without ever making a challenge.
Enough English racegoers saw War of Attrition coming to send them home happy as well. Punters do not go in for blind patriotism, what ever other stupidities might influence them.
But the Gold Cup was a blip in what was generally a good week for the bookmakers – if not for the fearless Freddie Williams, who reputedly lost £600,000 on Thursday to the Irish gambler J P McManus, and thousands more to an armed gang who attacked his Jaguar car with crowbars on the way back to his hotel.
But generally there has been a sense that this was far from a great Cheltenham.
The build up was wrecked by the death of the three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate and injuries to several other stars including the 2005 Champion, Kicking King.
So the match-ups seemed in advance less mouthwatering than usual.
The death of nine horses, though seemingly attributable to nothing more than a random cluster of accidents, inevitably gave rise to the kind of questions that jump racing hates having to answer. “Regrettable,” said the course managing director, Edward Gillespie.
It was also perishing cold, especially yesterday when the wind whipped across Gloucestershire with a fury that would have driven the crowds away from just about any sporting event other than this one. Last year, the Gold Cup was run in a heatwave that would have done credit to Ascot.
But in the second year of the Festival’s extension to four days rather than three, there was a widespread feeling that people who used to go home wanting more, were now desperate to get away to allow their brains, livers, chilblains and wallets to recover.
Both the horses and the punters have only three weeks to freshen up before the Grand National meeting at Aintree, and it may not be long enough for many in both categories.
Even if many of the horses were not stars on Monday, however, they are now. Brave Inca lived up to his name in a terrific battle for the Champion Hurdle. War of Attrition, aged only seven, might well be back to battle Kicking King next year. And that’s a prospect bewitching enough to keep all us madmen fascinated until then.
■The Jockey Club is to review safety procedures at the Festival after five horses died on Thursday, matching the worst tally in Festival history on a single day.