Even on the ra­dio, there are no fes­ti­val cer­tain­ties

Irish Examiner - Racing - - CHELTENHAM PREVIEW 2017 - Michael Moyni­han

Never mind the year. The time of day is what counts. At one Cheltenham Fes­ti­val, RTÉ ra­dio com­men­ta­tor Tony O’Hehir and his ra­dio pro­ducer were wait­ing for a taxi in the lobby of their ho­tel early one morn­ing, a long day at the race­course ahead for the two of them.

“I looked into the lounge of the ho­tel,” re­calls O’Hehir, “And there was a fella stretched across the lounge in­side there, out for the count. Drunk.”

Be­fore the two RTÉ men de­parted, the sleeper awoke and stag­gered over to them, look­ing for a tip for the Bumper.

“I told him the Bumper had been run the day be­fore, but the chap was obliv­i­ous.”

Like many an­other vis­i­tor to the fes­ti­val, O’Hehir dates his first trip to Cheltenham by the win­ner of the Gold Cup. And most of the other vis­its, too: “My first was L’Es­car­got’s first (Gold Cup) win, so it was 1970.

“Ob­vi­ously it’s gone to four days now, com­pared to three back then, so it’s got­ten much big­ger, with more races. It’s ques­tion­able whether that’s di­luted the qual­ity a bit, but it’s cer­tainly big busi­ness.

“Monks­field win­ning the Cham­pion Hur­dle (1978) would be a par­tic­u­lar favourite from that era, be­cause I can re­mem­ber see­ing him in a Flat race in Punchestown in his youth, and I fol­lowed him closely — he was a great battler. So his wins would stand out.

“At that time I wasn’t com­men­tat­ing — I started work­ing there the year The Thinker won the Gold Cup (1987), so if you’re ask­ing if the com­men­ta­tor gets in­volved if he’s backed the horse, not re­ally — I’m not some­one who backs short-price horses. I might have a bit of a flut­ter on a big-price horse, but it’s not some­thing that pre­oc­cu­pies me.”

It’s work for O’Hehir, who also writes for the Rac­ing

Post. Does the fact that Cheltenham ap­peals to a con­stituency be­yond the hard-core rac­ing fan add to the pres­sure?

“The weeks lead­ing up to Cheltenham are a bit of a night­mare — you’re writ­ing about the horses and you’re try­ing not to miss any sto­ries of horses get­ting in­jured and so on.

“It’s al­most a re­lief to get over there — my sched­ule once I’m there is to get to the track around half seven in the morn­ing and to get quotes and news. In the morn­ing I’m wear­ing my Rac­ing Post hat, if you like.

“Then, come one o’clock, I switch into com­men­tary mode with RTÉ Ra­dio, and we carry all the races. After the last race I’m back down among the horses again, try­ing to play catch-up.

“It’s hec­tic. My friends in RTÉ who aren’t into rac­ing, ev­ery year they say ‘ah, there he is, off on the beer again for the few days in Cheltenham’, but noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. It’s early to bed, early to rise. I’ve been stay­ing in the same ho­tel for many years, and when you get back there after a long day a few of us might go for a meal to­gether, but that’d be it. There’s no long ses­sions.

“There used be talk about these fa­mous all-night card games im­mor­talised by the likes of Ray­mond Smith and oth­ers, and those games went on, cer­tainly, but you don’t see them that of­ten nowa­days. It’s changed a lot.”

When you’ve done ev­ery race in Cheltenham for 30 years “it can be­come a bit of a blur”, but there have been high­lights, he adds.

“Hur­ri­cane Fly’s f irst Cham­pion Hur­dle (2011) would be one. Moscow Flyer comes to mind as well. Istabraq’s three Cham­pion Hur­dles (1998-2000), Hardy Eus­tace’s two wins (2004-5) — and in the Gold Cup, Kick­ing King and War of At­tri­tion won in in back to back years (2005-6), and nei­ther trainer had won the race be­fore, so those were stand-outs as well.”

Four days of rac­ing means home­work night after night, and O’Hehir points out the ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence be­tween him and some­one look­ing to make a few bob at the fes­ti­val: “I’ll go through the big races my­self, but if you men­tion a horse to a com­men­ta­tor the first thing they’ll think of is colours, while the first thing a punter thinks of is form or breed­ing.

“I have an A4 pad and do prep work the night be­fore the race, but the big­ger races, you’d know most of the horses be­fore­hand.

“Big hand­i­caps like the County Hur­dle and the Coral Cup, they take a lot of study, but you can end up con­fus­ing your­self as well. I’m up in the top of the stand, and we share a box with BBC Ra­dio there, but you can go out onto a bal­cony at the back of the com­men­tary po­si­tion and look down on the pad­dock, so you can do a fair bit of work be­tween the races as well.”

It’d be re­miss not to ask about this year...

“Not so much from a punt­ing point of view, but Dou­vain looks to be ex­cep­tional, and Al­tior in the Arkle — those look like ex­cep­tional horses, but the Cham­pion Hur­dle and the Gold Cup are more open.

“Na­tive River will be hard to beat in the Gold Cup, but Gor­don El­liott is very sweet on Death Duty in the Al­bert Bartlett.

“As of­ten hap­pens, we should have plenty of win­ners, but they may not be the ones the pun­ters want.”

True in Cheltenham. True ev­ery­where.

It’s hec­tic. My friends in RTÉ who aren’t into rac­ing, ev­ery year they say ‘ah, there he is, off on the beer again for the few days in Cheltenham’, but noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. It’s early to bed, early to rise.

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