Even on the radio, there are no festival certainties
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.