THE storms are receding, the sky is getting blue, birds are singing, flowers are growing. Spring is in the air and one’s thoughts turn to...Cheltenham! What else?
The hundreds of racing fans who packed into the Dunraven Arms hotel on Sunday evening last for one of the longest running of all Cheltenham preview nights were certainly thinking of nothing else.
Conversations with one’s fellow travellers ran along a single track: what do you fancy? The air crackled with whispers about the upcoming festival, horse whispers if you will, and while few realistically expected blinding insights or unmined gold from the panel, most happily listened to the jovial output from the top table and chatted about their passion to anyone they met in the corridor, at the bar, even in the toilets.
In the space of about 15 minutes three separate strangers had divulged details to me of some eye-watering bets they had placed for the upcoming festival.
One man in particular would be deep in the hole before the first day was half finished, should things not go his way early on. Best of luck my friend.
As usual for this event proprietors the Murphys had lined up a superb panel chaired by perennial racing broadcaster of the year Nick Luck, who is clearly getting more used to handling vociferous Irish crowds.
Alongside him were champion trainer Nicky Henderson, Tom ‘Pricewise’ Segal of the Racing Post, rising star in the training ranks Harry Fry, local jockey and wit of the weighing room Andrew McNamara, legendary bloodstock agent David Minton and Willie Power, of the famous bookmaking family.
There were phone-in contributions too from the most harried man in horseracing – Simon Claisse, clerk of the course at Cheltenham; the man with most influence on the state of the ground for the festival. Well, him and the man upstairs, but there aren’t any major weather events on the horizon.
Jockey Richard Johnson was also on the phone and pointed people firmly in the direction of Fingal Bay in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, which is run on day three of the festival.
Despite all that star power, the most eagerly anticipated contribution of the night usually comes from JP McManus, a regular patron of this event.
Given the champion owner is mob handed with entries and loves a festival winner, it is little wonder you could hear a pin drop as he conversed with MC Luck about his prospects this year.
The most popular question being: what is your best chance in the handicaps?
To which JP replied Regal Encore would have a good chance if he got a run, but he might not as his handicap mark is possibly too low to get into his preferred engagement - the county hurdle.
Regal Encore has, as they say, been well found in the market and a price of just 6/1 for one of the festival’s most competitive races wouldn’t have excited too many.
More interesting by far was JP’s assertion that he preferred the Supreme Novices Hurdle for the locally-trained Gilgamboa, rather than the aforementioned county hurdle. A price of 16/1 about that fellow ought to tempt some each way cash out of wallets.
Aside from that little nugget the most eye-opening contribution of the evening came from Henderson whose nap of the meeting (best bet) was Our Conor, who lines up against his own hotly fancied My Tent Or Yours in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. “You’re napping Our Conor? Against your own horse?” asked an incredulous Luck.
Henderson, a veteran of these affairs and as such not too bothered by what people think is his best bet, nodded in the affirmative before indicating he’d be taking issue with Segal later on at the bar over some opinion he had ventured. And that summed up the spirit of the occasion: good food and drink, good fun and all in a good cause - in this case the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Roll on Cheltenham.
For more on this week’s festival, see the Limerick Leader and stay online for updates