On the basis that the only things really worth carrying to Cheltenham in your travel bag are memories, here’s one selection of festival best bits that might produce others.
1: Silver Buck was at least one young teenager’s favourite horse and there were almost tears when he got stuffed by Little Owl in 1981. Twelve months later and it was a very different story. ‘Bucket’ overcame an interrupted preparation to beat Bregawn, and managed to do it with Robert Earnshaw on his back, a rider whose ‘style’ owned more to the Sandhurst forward seat than RACE.
2: And while we are on the Dickinson stable theme, is there anyone else in Ireland who watched with horror as Dawn Run overhauled Wayward Lad in 1986? If ever a horse deserved a Gold Cup crown, it was surely the dark destroyer whose stride up the run-in just kept getting shorter and shorter.
3: To say that great racing memories aren’t influenced by winning bets is the preserve of the pony-club brigade and there was more riding on Dorans Pride in the 1995 Stayers Hurdle than one Irish Press hack’s meagre salary could justify. However bravado resulted in a supposedly casual flourish to the office of a substantially enhanced betting slip. Trying to maintain a calm front while dissolving with panic inside resulted in a bellow at the last flight that might just have made Shane Broderick’s ears as he went by the post.
4: Conor O’Dwyer got the relief bellow first hand. A maiden festival visit in 1996 revolved around Imperial Call. One Man was the second-coming going into the race while Imperial Call was a comparative unknown, trained by a West Cork based Englishman who’d waved bye-bye to his leg during the Korean War. It all seemed a bit unlikely and yet Conor managed to maintain an almost zen-like faith in the young horse’s ability to win. Proof that the good guys really can win sometime.
5: Anyone remember Royal Frolic in 1976? Not many do, but to a child – a very, very young child, you understand, a toddler really – he was a knife to the heart. Irish horses won the Gold Cup, right? Not English ones. Who the hell was Royal Frolic, and why was he ridden by a jockey with an Irish name – John Burke. Having said that, the race is now on Youtube, and he won well, the bastard!
6: People talk about Cheltenham’s demands but there surely has never been a tougher horse than Brave Inca and his 2006 Champion Hurdle remains the benchmark when it comes to grim refusal to getting beat. McCoy was hitting him with a circuit to go and yet not for one moment could anyone doubt the horse would not figure at the finish. Even at the time, Brave Inca seemed a remarkable freak-of-nature. Each passing year is likely to only embellish the legend.
7: Yours truly was one of the first to interview a then little known Co. Carlow based trainer called Tom Foley who had managed to get his hands on a strong-running, slightly buzzy gelding called Danoli. As a story it pretty much had everything – little guy taking on the world with a horse bought for comparative peanuts. And there were quirks galore. Anyone else remember the anticipation of whether or not Tom would wear a tie at Cheltenham and risk not being allowed into the winners spot?
8: We’ve been down this road before but Punjabi’s Champion Hurlde last year was a personal favourite, maintaining the illusion for another little while at least that I very occasionally know what I’m talking about!
9: Lovely Citizen’s 1991 Foxhunters was another little-guy winning out story. Eugene and William O’Sullivan took their unheralded horse to Cheltenham for a prize he seemed almost destined to win since everything that could go wrong with everything else in the race damn near did.
10: He might not have done anything afterwards but the 1996 bumper winner Wither Or Which was one memorable winner. Willie Mullins taking the ride for one last hurrah in the saddle, missing the break, giving the outside to nobody and then powering up the hill. Here’s hoping for more of the same this week.