SINCE moving to Britain four years ago I’ve gone to the Cheltenham Festival four times. It feels like the natural thing to do. My memories of the Festival go back a lot further, to 1986 when Dawn Run galloped and gutted his way into Gold Cup folklore.
We couldn’t beat England in much at that time. But we could match ’em fetlock for fetlock over jumps.
I remember watching at home, belly on the carpet, neck craned, eyes open wide as Dawn Run played his no-he-can’t-yes-he-can-duel with Wayward Lad up the Cheltenham hill and to victory, just.
I wasn’t really a racing fan. Like most eight-year-olds I was simply a fan of television. But this was TV worth watching, with a celebration that looked like it was worth more – the crowd spilled over into the winner’s enclosure like water from a simmering pot.
Winning jockey John Joe O’Neill was in the middle of it all, armed raised with triumphant delight, dressed in red. You knew Irish punters were going to paint the town the same colour.
There was a racing journalist who lived around the corner, Damien McElroy. He was there that day. His report billed the win as epic. It had to be, because this was the greatest win in the greatest race in the greatest festival. The same people from our town, steeped in racing, went back year after year.
I remember secondary school used to shut down unofficially for Cheltenham week. Students and teachers entered into this kind of unspoken work-to-rule pact. If we spotted them in the bookies we wouldn’t say anything as long as they didn’t, because they were bunking off too.
One year the principal relented and wheeled the telly into the library. A board went up in the corner listing the runners and riders and then the betting started. You could say that was the moment the strike went official.
Moments’ later things turned a bit special when a horse called Cyborgo won the Stayers Hurdle. The year was 1996. We had a tip. The bets were down. After school study got cancelled.
Ruby Walsh wasn’t in our school but he played scrum-half with us for the rugby club in Naas. That made him a local. By 1998 we had finished school for good and were legally allowed into the bookies. Joy spilled onto Market Square when he won the Champion Bumper on Alexander Banquet in 1998. Ruby’s first.
Twelve years later Ruby was trying to equal Pat Taaffe’s record for the number of winning rides at the festival.
I felt like a novice hurdler when I spoke to a journalist from The Irish Field in the press tent. I asked how long had he been coming to Cheltenham. For 30 years, he said. I said nothing.
Before the Champion Hurdle, Charlie McCreevy wandered by. The former minister for finance was then the EU commissioner and he ambling around Cheltenham with no security, chewing the fat, checking the odds, doing his thing.
It could have been Punchestown.
We were in Britain but it was Ireland really. The degrees of separation had the same limits and Charley Mac looked right at home.
It always feels warming when the fourth estate calls it an invasion because never has an invasion been made to feel so welcome.
One British punter put it best when he said: “If someone is going to get one over on you in sport, you want it to be the Irish. Somehow, it feels strangely agreeable.”
For agreeable read magical because Cheltenham is Ireland versus England with a peacetime embrace.
It’s days when you can get burned by the sun as well as the bookies, but to hell with it, we’ll all burn together. That’s the kinship.
It’s boom-time for a sport that spends large portions of the year at the back of the field.
It’s Ruby Walsh jumping on Quevega in 2010 and by the time he jumps off, Pat Taaffe has been matched. The next day he will be bested.
It’s 2011 and Ruby again, losing his whip, winning The Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly and everyone losing their heads with joy.
It’s the charge to the Winner’s Enclosure and the cheer of victory enjoyed by everyone because victory doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of nationality.
It’s about coming over, making a mark and getting one over in the nicest way possible. It’s a sense of ownership because it stings when your horse takes a fall.
It’s a parish transfer, another day tomorrow, faces from home, talking about horses and nothing else. It’s ours against theirs. Last year. This year. Next Year. Forever.
It’s nightlife and day-life and the adrenalin of another life.
It’s the train back to Paddington and carriage participation in a who-has-the-best-socks competition.
It’s ‘are you Irish? Did you back Ruby? We did too’.
It’s Danoli, Moscow Flyer, Hardy Eustace and Istabraq. It’s Dawn Run and a new Dawn every March. And every day, for four glorious days, the prospect of an even brighter one.