Savour it while we’re above the turf

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - 1. PUNCHESTOWN GOLD CUP

THEY come over the sec­ond last three in a line. When Coney­gree clips that one it seems to be be­tween Djakadam and Siz­ing John. And it’s Djakadam, the peren­nial brides­maid, who’s get­ting the best of it. Even after mak­ing a mis­take at the last he still seems to be mov­ing with much more flu­ency than Siz­ing John. But on the run-in, Siz­ing John ral­lies and edges closer — un­til in the last hun­dred yards they’re locked to­gether. The bat­tle is al­most un­bear­ably close, ev­ery sinew of horse and jockey seems stretched to the max­i­mum. You can feel your own limbs tighten in sym­pa­thy.

I’m down right at the win­ning post and as the two horses thun­der past I can’t sep­a­rate them. I turn to a wo­man stand­ing be­side me, “Who won it? Who won it?”

“I know Out­lander didn’t,” she says and shows me her los­ing docket. Here comes the PA. “The win­ner . . . num­ber six.” Siz­ing John. There is a roar from the favourite’s sup­port­ers but then a kind of awed lull as 20,000 peo­ple ask them­selves and oth­ers: What did we just see? Was that one of the great­est races ever?

It cer­tainly con­firmed the great­ness of two Gold Cup win­ners: Siz­ing John — who pre­vailed through sheer guts while not fir­ing on all cylin­ders and after los­ing a shoe, and Coney­gree — who al­though run­ning for just the sec­ond time in 18 months, showed the same kind of courage by set­ting a blaz­ing pace from the start be­fore com­ing up just short. And split­ting them, Djakadam — twice run­ner-up in the Chel­tenham Gold Cup, three times sec­ond in the Punchestown Gold Cup. Al­ways so near, al­ways so far.

Was it great? It was the great­est race at the great­est fes­ti­val in one of the great­est sea­sons in the his­tory of Ir­ish Na­tional Hunt rac­ing. What more do you want?

2. A LIFE WELL LIVED

WE got chat­ting in the bus from Dublin to Punchestown, my­self and the English­man. He en­joyed his rac­ing trips to Ire­land. Been all over. Re­mem­bered go­ing to night races in Clon­mel, go­ing to Cork and hav­ing a 16-1 win­ner thanks to a tip he’d got from a man on the ferry at Tar­bert. Went every­where with his wife, played golf in Ja­maica, went on the Ori­ent Ex­press. She was dead three years and he missed her. I should go rac­ing in Eng­land. Not just the ob­vi­ous places. He loved Ch­ester, York was as good as As­cot in his eyes. There were still things he wanted to do. He was com­ing back for Lay­town be­cause he hadn’t seen that yet, imag­ined it would be like noth­ing else.

The day be­fore he’d found him­self at a loose end and taken a bus up to see The Giants Cause­way. He’d voted Brexit but he didn’t want any­thing to change be­tween Eng­land and Ire­land. The friends he’d made here. The birthday party he’d been to in Dublin, 85 peo­ple, 83 re­la­tions of the birthday boy, the English­man and his late wife. “I like my Guin­ness too, though not as much as I used to. Not since I turned 80.”

We wished each other luck.

3. GAME ON

IT took just two races for ev­ery­one to re­alise that talk about the con­test be­tween Gor­don El­liott (right) and Wil­lie Mullins be­ing prac­ti­cally over was spec­tac­u­larly ill-founded. As Ci­laos Emery and Melon com­bined for a 1-2 in the Her­ald Cham­pion Novice Hur­dle to, in one fell swoop, knock €80,000 off El­liott’s €400,000 lead, the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the leader against the team Mullins had lined up for the next five days struck home with great force.

No bat­tle for any train­ers’ ti­tle any­where has caught the imag­i­na­tion quite like this one. All over Punchestown you heard peo­ple mak­ing the cal­cu­la­tions. How much is be­tween them now? How much money does the win­ner get in the next one? Will it come down to the last day? Will it come down to the last race? You’ve never seen strain till you’ve seen a man with a pint in his hand try to sub­tract 678 from 453.

The ques­tion we’d all been ask­ing be­fore that sec­ond race was: will Labaik start?

The an­swer was no, the Supreme Novices Hur­dle win­ner stood stock-still with all the ob­du­racy of Enda Kenny cling­ing to the lead­er­ship of

Fine Gael. Then he tried to duck out be­tween the rails. Even­tu­ally, with ev­ery­thing else gone into the wide blue yon­der, Jack Kennedy per­suaded Labaik to jog round the track in or­der to avoid a sus­pen­sion. An out­wardly un­abashed Gor­don El­liott de­clared he’d sad­dle him again for Fri­day’s Cham­pion Hur­dle. “If he doesn’t start in that, there’ ll be war, and if he wins it, there’ ll be war,” mut­tered the Dub to my right as he balled up a bet­ting slip with ex­treme prej­u­dice.

4. THE GLAMOROUS LIFE I

WANTED the glamorous grand­mother from Mullingar to win. To strike a blow for ex­pe­ri­ence and be­cause I thought her rig-out was very nice (use of the term rig-out may in­di­cate a cer­tain lack of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge on my part). Ash­ley the hair­styl­ist from Naas won in­stead. That first day I couldn’t even pick a win­ner in the Best Dressed Wo­man con On test. the other hand this may have been the tough­est con­test of the week. So many run­ners and so much qual­ity. Those com­pli­cated hats, the colour­ful, well, rigouts and a gen­eral air of el­e­gance which sug­gested a mal­func­tion­ing time ma­chine had de­posited a posse of star­lets from the age of Grace Kelly and Au­drey Hep­burn into this cor­ner of 21st cen­tury Kil­dare. The only give­away were the Ca­van, Kil­dare, Meath and Dublin ac­cents — but those were en­dear­ing too. This wasn’t a ‘lovely girls’ con­test, it was a trib­ute to the power of cou­ture in help­ing or­di­nary peo­ple look and, one sus­pects, feel ter­rific.

In or­der to pro­tect my­self against any charges of sex­ism I must re­veal that I got dressed up my­self. I looked pretty fan­tas­tic.

5. TIME TO SHINE

THE oc­ca­sional rac­ing viewer might feel en­ti­tled to ask where this Rob­bie Power dude came out of. He knows Tony McCoy (God­like, now re­tired), Ruby Walsh (wins at Chel­tenham to back­ground of lads throw­ing hats in the air), Barry Ger­aghty, Davy Rus­sell, maybe the young Ker­ry­men who rides for El­liott. But this Power guy who sud­denly seems to be win­ning ev­ery big race go­ing? Is he an­other won­derkid? No, he’s a 35-year-old who, apart from win­ning the Grand Na­tional in 2007, had un­til this year en­joyed a ca­reer of re­spectable ob­scu­rity with, for ex­am­ple, just one win at Chel­tenham.

So he wins the Chel­tenham Gold Cup this year and then he wins the Ir­ish Grand Na­tional and in the big race on day one at Punchestown, the Cham­pion Chase, Power bides his time and brings Fox Nor­ton with a late run to get past Ruby Walsh and the hot favourite Un de Sceaux. The fol­low­ing day it’s Power who’s on Siz­ing John in that most mem­o­rable of fin­ishes. It’s like a para­ble of the virtues of pa­tience. You could tell the casual fan that Rob­bie is the son of Cap­tain Con the showjumper, I sup­pose. But he’s en­ti­tled to his own billing at this stage.

6. WIN­NER EACH WAY, WIN­NER EACH WAY

THEY camp in front of the stands, shout­ing the odds, the chalk and boards of an­other era re­placed by a blink­ing dig­i­tal dis­play — but the old bat­tered bags with the locks on them that keep the loot safe are still the same. Brian Keenan has come from Roscom­mon, Mul­hol­land from Gal­way, there’s a man from Lis­towel, Kelly the Dun­dalk bookie, whose sign says ‘since 1930’. There’s Gerry Wood­lock and Richie Ger­non and the ef­fer­ves­cent Mar­cella McCoy, and there’s Bernard Barry from Dun­boyne who fears he may be part of an en­dan­gered species. “We’re get­ting squeezed from ev­ery side,” he says, “and it costs four or five hun­dred quid to set up for the day so it’s get­ting harder to make money.” How­ever, he adds with a gleam in his eye, day one has been a good one for the book­ies. In­deed it has, and as I watch Minella Till Dawn, my fancy in the sec­ond race on day two, per­form as though his name was a pre­dic­tion of the time he’d fin­ish, my sen­ti­men­tal feel­ings to­wards Bernard’s trade di­min­ishes some­what.

But not en­tirely. The ring book­ies are an es­sen­tial part of the rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. And if they are even­tu­ally ren­dered anachro­nis­tic by an in­creas­ingly vir­tual world we will all be, as we of­ten are when deal­ing with the book­ies, poorer. With sec­onds to go be­fore the Punchestown Gold Cup I see a man sprint down to the ring shout­ing that he wants to get two grand on Djakadam. I won­der if he made it.

7. THE HORSE AND HOUND

IT seems an odd ad­di­tion to the ac­tion at first. A few red-coated men on horses with a pack of hounds sprint­ing down the race­course in front of them. They’re from the Water­ford Hunt and the an­nouncer tells us the dis­play is to re­mind us of the roots of steeplechas­ing.

The sport is called Na­tional Hunt for a rea­son after all, and was es­sen­tially an ef­fort to repli­cate the ex­pe­ri­ence of fox­hunt­ing, all that leap­ing over gates and hedges and ditches, the whole cross coun­try clam­our, in a com­pet­i­tive con­text.

It’s good to be re­minded of this. Sports need to hang on to their dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tions in a mod­ern world of ever-in­creas­ing ho­mo­gene­ity. Punchestown be­gins with a race for hunters which, with its cir­cuitous route and the banks which need to be ne­go­ti­ated, is very dif­fer­ent from the con­tests which fol­low. The course it­self is held in trust by the Kil­dare Hunt Club which, in the words of Punchestown Chair­man David Mongey, “is in the hands of the men and women of Kil­dare who have man­aged to re­tain the tra­di­tions of the past.”

We live in an age when a bead has been drawn on field sports. Fox­hunt­ing has been banned in Eng­land, a cen­turies-old tra­di­tion wiped out with the stroke of a pen, while last year an at­tempt was made to ban cours­ing in Ire­land and pro­po­nents of such a ban also op­pose grey­hound rac­ing. There are plenty of an­i­mal rights ad­vo­cates who’d like to see horse rac­ing axed too. The Pu­ri­tan worry that other peo­ple are en­joy­ing them­selves in the wrong way lives on. But so, in Ire­land at least, does the hunt.

8. NOT SO FAST MY FRIEND

BY the end of day one Gor­don El­liott’s lead has been cut from €400,000 to €260,000. With four days left it’s ob­vi­ous that a con­tin­u­a­tion of this pat­tern will hand Mullins the ti­tle. How­ever the pen­du­lum looks to have swung again when the ut­terly un­fan­cied Cham­pagne Clas­sic lands the grade one Daily Mir­ror Novices Hur­dle on Wed­nes­day for El­liott, hold­ing off the chal­lenge of Mullins’ pow­er­house Pen­hill by two-and-a-half lengths.

Cham­pagne Clas­sic has al­ready played a fate­ful role in the Mullins-El­liott ri­valry, his win in the Martin Pipe Hur­dle late on the last day at Chel­tenham giv­ing the Meath­man the Lead­ing Trainer ti­tle. A be­mused Michael O’Leary de­scribed him at the time as ‘the worst horse we have’. Now he seems to have struck an­other cru­cial blow. By the end of the day El­liott has ac­tu­ally stretched his lead a lit­tle, to €275,000, and O’Leary ad­mits that the horse may have been a bet­ter-value buy than he thought. O’Leary ad­mit­ting he was wrong about some­thing? Any­thing can hap­pen at Punchestown.

9. RUBY, RUBY, RUBY, RUBY

YOU are Ruby Walsh. You are the best jockey of them all. It is the sec­ond day dur­ing the big­gest fes­ti­val after Chel­tenham, you are rid­ing in big races which will have a cru­cial im­pact on the most talked about train­ers ti­tle race in his­tory and it is all go­ing wrong.

In the Louis Fitzger­ald hur­dle Paul Tow­nend on C’est Jersey gets out in front and steals a march on ev­ery­one — Ruby comes sec­ond on the favourite Bat­tle­ford. Thirty five min­utes later Ruby’s on an­other favourite, Pen­hill, who has his eye wiped by Cham­pagne Clas­sic. And in the big race of the day Rob­bie Power has a short head to spare on Ruby, who al­most al­ways wins from this po­si­tion. In Thurs­day’s big race, the Lad­brokes Stay­ers Hur­dle, Ruby is again on the favourite Ni­chols Canyon and loses out by a head to Noel Fe­hily on English raider U now ha time an harry.

This doesn’t change the fact that Ruby is the best of them all. But this im­mensely frus­trat­ing pe­riod sums up a great and es­sen­tial truth about horse rac­ing, no mat­ter how good you are, noth­ing is given eas­ily and noth­ing comes au­to­mat­i­cally.

10. PEO­PLE

THERE’S the Roscom­mon man who tells me, ‘Grow­ing up, I did two things — I looked after suck calves and I fol­lowed horses,’ and that he’s ‘like a groupie for great horses. I just came here to look at Coney­gree be­cause I think he’s a great cham­pion’. The GAA man from Clon­dalkin who reck­ons the Dubs will be grand once Jonny Cooper re­turns to the back line and who says, as we watch Michael O’Leary in the pa­rade ring, “They can say what they want but he’s a great man. Only for him we’d still be pay­ing 300 quid to fly to Lon­don.”

The lads from Kerry and the lads from Lon­don who spend the trip back to Dublin slag­ging each other off vir­u­lently about Spurs and Chelsea, the en­counter con­clud­ing with the Kerry lads per­suad­ing their new ac­quain­tances the Kil­lar­ney races has to be their next out­ing and telling them the best places to go for the crack. The Cork­man who spends half an hour hag­gling to get a fiver knocked off a pair of binoc­u­lars in the shop­ping vil­lage, telling the sales­man, “I was doing it for a laugh, sure if you can’t have a laugh in this life, where are you?” The man who some­how seems to epit­o­mise a vi­tal strain in the Ir­ish char­ac­ter by ob­serv­ing with great glee, as hail­stones pour down, “I was here one year when we were mak­ing snow­balls”. Sport is about per­form­ers but it’s also about peo­ple.

11. MANLY LOVE

CHAM­PAGNE Clas­sic’s win is greeted by a stunned and some­what re­sent­ful si­lence. There is hurt in the eyes of the pun­ters. It is one of those re­sults which re­ally ham­mer home the es­sen­tially un­fair na­ture of bet­ting. If horse rac­ing be­gan with the aris­toc­racy, so did bet­ting. It was all very well, I think darkly as an­other fancy goes down to de­feat, for those lads with their 100,000 acres. I con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity of busk­ing to make the fare back to Sk­ibb. Do peo­ple still like Fisherman’s Blues?

Thank the Lord for Jamie Codd. Hav­ing done the trick for me with Enniskillen on the first day he now re­wards the gam­ble on Fay­on­agh in the Rac­ing Post Grade One Flat Race, which is my fi­nal throw of the dice. There is some­thing mar­vel­lously calm about Codd. Re­mem­ber that re­fusal to panic when Fay­on­agh got left be­hind at Chel­tenham? This time around he takes no chances at all, gets the horse out in front at the start, keeps out of trou­ble and eases him clear for as com­fort­able and ten­sion-free a win as you’ll ever see. I may not ex­actly have fallen in love with Jamie at that mo­ment but I cer­tainly feel like singing a cou­ple of verses of Hope­lessly De­voted To You un­der his win­dow.

“What’s the story with that Jamie Codd then,” asks an­other of the English­men who seem om­nipresent at Punchestown. “How come he’s an am­a­teur when he’s bet­ter than most of the pros?” Dunno mate. But I’ve a feel­ing that for Jamie and me and Fay­on­agh this is the be­gin­ning of a beau­ti­ful friend­ship.

12. L’CHAIM I

T is home time for me, though the show con­tin­ues at Punchestown and Mullins comes back hard at El­liott on Thurs­day. On the way west I’m think­ing of a great paint­ing by the English­man Wil­liam Frith en­ti­tled Derby Day ,ahuge seething panorama of the go­ings on at the Ep­som Downs in the mid 19th cen­tury.

It strikes me that this idea of a race meet­ing as a great hu­man fes­ti­val still holds true to­day. Peo­ple come to Punchestown, and the places like it, to bet and walk and talk and eat and drink and laugh and cheer and cel­e­brate and watch and sup­port and dress up and hang out. It is a com­mu­nity and it is a car­ni­val. As I walk away from it for the last time this year a €50 note slips out of my pocket. Straight away about half a dozen peo­ple shout at me, point it out to me, com­pete to hand it to me. That is what most peo­ple are like. They are de­cent and Punchestown is where they give them­selves a lit­tle re­ward for the hard work which keeps their own per­sonal show and that of the folks they love on the road.

A favourite toast of mine is the Jewish one, L’Chaim, which means sim­ply ‘to life’. So here’s to life and to Punchestown and to all the peo­ple who were there last week, to well-trav­elled English­men, well-dressed West­meath women, win­ning Kil­dare women, en­thu­si­as­tic Roscom­mon men, par­si­mo­nious Cork men, book­ies from Meath, Gaels from Dublin, hunts­men from Water­ford, bucks from Kerry, geezers from Lon­don and ev­ery­one who mo­men­tar­ily made it seem that the cen­tre of the uni­verse is lo­cated just out­side Naas.

To ‘The Turf’ — and may we be long above it.

Un De Sceaux, with Ruby Walsh in the sad­dle, jumps the last ahead of even­tual win­ner Fox Nor­ton and God’s Own dur­ing the BoyleS­port Cham­pion Steeple­chase at Punchestown. Pic­tured be­low (left) are some of the book­ies that make the track ex­pe­ri­ence what it is, and (right) race­go­ers urge on their picks as the ac­tion un­folds at the Kil­dare venue

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