The last week of February, my phone usually pings and it’s a message from my Father that brings a smile to my face. ‘Tickets arrived’, two words with no emoji and not even a full stop. Cheltenham. Disneyland for adults. I think and hope the people who give us the tickets know how grateful we are. It’s never taken for granted. Four days of extraordinary live sport. Once the two word text arrives, the count down is really on.
For us, Cheltenham is like a working holiday. Can you imagine a teacher going to a school on their holidays or a chef going to a kitchen for a few days’ break! It’s probably a bit sad really but when you’re in the game I guess it takes over your life a little. You immerse yourself in it and while many may find it bizarre, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
While we don’t have a pitch at Cheltenham, we still have quite an interest in what’s happening out on the track. At every big festival from Down Royal in November to Leopardstown in February, we have punters enquiring about Cheltenham. Hurricane Fly is one that sticks out in my mind the most. Every time he won at Leopardstown and a punter came to collect their winnings they would say ‘keep one hundred of it and have it on ‘The Fly’ for the Champion Hurdle’. He’s evens I’d reply which would always get a reply of ‘I’ll have to get a bit better than that’! Irish punters love the household names and while many think the Irish banker is a mythical expression used by big bookmaking firms to drum up interest, if our experiences are anything to go by I can assure you the ‘Irish banker’ can hurt when it collects. Dunguib getting beaten made a week enjoyable, Sizing John winning the Gold Cup made a long week even longer.
Heading for Dublin airport every year to make the trip is like Christmas eve as a kid – exciting, nervous but most of all just happy to be going. I think it’s what Cheltenham brings to most people. Happiness. A release from every day normality for a couple of hours over four very special days in March. To anyone that says Cheltenham is the same as any other days racing I have to strongly disagree with you. Cheltenham is not just any ordinary racing. There’s no point even trying to explain. Cheltenham is just different.
Alas, there will be no pilgrimage this year. It’s going to be a big void to fill. I’ll miss it all, the pre parade ring, the betting ring, the roar, the winners returning down the shoot, the hard luck stories, meeting friends, the food with a relative Willie McAuliffe and a friend Donal Fingleton in Lambs restaurant each night in Stratford on Avon and the slagging about who is going to pay for the meal. Listening to other Irish lads in the pub telling their friends plenty of lies about how much they had on certain winners, it’s all part of the attraction!
The light is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel in the UK. 10,000 fans look likely to be allowed back into their stadia from mid-May all going well. Their ultra fast approach of rolling out a vaccine plan is now beginning to bear fruit. And while my UK colleagues may not get to work their Pitches in Cheltenham or Aintree this year hopefully they will get a good run at the summer at meetings like Royal Ascot, Goodwood and York. Credit where it’s due to all involved. The BHA have kept the pressure on the UK government, premier league bosses have constantly kept looking for a return of crowds and there has been a general acceptance that sports need live audiences. When these powerful bodies come together and work with government, results can be achieved.
Ireland appears further from a return to normal now than it did at any time in the last six months, which for my colleagues and I is very worrying. Our countries inability to roll out a relatively straightforward vaccine plan is costing business a fortune and to be honest, has frustrated the living life out of me.
There also appears to be no real desire from sports organisations to get crowds back at live sports. Brian Kavanagh, CEO of HRI is on record as saying ‘we are very grateful we are racing at all’ as recently as a week ago. Easy enough for a government to put it on the long finger when there’s nobody banging down the door to say we are an outdoor event that can be run safely with spectators. The IRFU and The GAA are guilty of similar in my opinion. No rush to get spectators back. We appear to be the sacrificial lambs. We’ve given up everything so they could hold on to something. No wages in 12 months while they haven’t missed a pay cheque.
The first time I ever met my now wife she really showed very little interest in me, but I was determined to get her phone number! After weeks of trying she eventually gave in and the rest is history! The moral of the story is some things are worth fighting really hard for and just accepting a negative answer or rejection is not always the correct course of action. In life, you generally get what you have the courage to fight for. On course bookmakers and their staff, point to point trainers and jockeys, owners, race goers and anyone else with a vested interest in Irish racing need some hope and a feeling that someone is fighting their corner. At the minute it feels like we are very much on our own.
I hate to be ending this piece on a negative note and regular readers of my blog will know I am definitely a glass half full character but patience is definitely wearing thin.
Winston Churchill had the famous quote ‘if you are going through hell, keep going.’ We’ve been going through it for a while now so I hope this nightmare is almost over, we need to get back to work. We need our industry to fight our corner. Our voice doesn’t feel like it’s being heard.
All the best,