The road from Paddington to Cheltenham
The concourse on Champion Hurdle day is all pointy shoes, free scarves and miniature editions of the Racing Post. The train is always a crush too but to be Irish is to somehow be a better class of punter. In the eyes of the English gambler your national identity might offer a valuable insight. It’s nonsense but it’s nice. The early morning soundtrack is always hat of beer cans opening, corks popping and talk of sure-things through Swindon and Stroud. Sometimes on the way home it’s how did those sure things go wrong?
The same people travel from Ireland every year. Without phoning I know who’s going to be there from Kildare and I know where they are going to be stood - by the back entrance of the Mandarin Bar between races. The first year former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy sauntered across to chat and the ease of his manner made me think it was someone who really looked like Charlie McCreevey. I knew the council in Kildare used to give employees free days to go to Punchestown but from the European Parliament?
Cheltenham preview nights...in London
The preview night is very much a part of the Festival preamble with jockeys holding regular pub pitches around the country. Denis O’Regan makes a popular annual appearance at the Gipsy Hill Tavern in South East London. It being one of my locals I was asked to file a few questions at last year’s offering. With no visual aids, one working microphone and a shared edition of the Racing Post, it was a rickety but charming installment but one that returned a few winners to see him back again this year.
Business, celebrity and pleasure
JP McManus, Michael O’Leary, the late Patsy Byrne and Niall Quinn are just a sample of the Irish personalities you’d typically expect to see at the Festival. I remember the year, the Jimmy Nesbitt owned Riverside Threatre won the Michael O’Leary sponsored Ryanair Chase and a joyous mob swept into the Enclosure behind jockey Barry Geraghty. Winners remain the currency that connect conversations on and off the track. I didn’t know anyone who backed Synchronised to win the 2012 Gold Cup, until I met Patsy Byrne at a rugby match back in London later that night. The good news was toasted in the Harlequins Stoop.
Once upon a time it felt like Ireland versus England. Now, Willie Mullins shoulders the burden of a nation with some comfort too. In 2015, he finished withe eight winners and the leading trainer's title, beating the seven winners Nicky Henderson returned in 2012. Mullins presence denotes winners. It’s the surest bet of all going into 2016.