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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:44 GMT
Sermon on the mounts
By Frank Keogh
BBC Sport at Cheltenham

They were under Holy Orders - and they were off, albeit with a delay because of traffic problems.

Punting priest Father Sean Breen traditionally holds a special mass service in Cheltenham when St Patrick's Day falls in Cheltenham Festival week.

And there was standing room only as he said mass to a packed congregation at the Thistle Hotel, better known by regulars under its previous name, the Golden Valley Hotel.

Father Sean Breen after his mass service in Cheltenham
Father Breen has been a Cheltenham regular for 40 years

Father Breen, fresh out of hospital with a chest infection, is now based in a small village in County Kildare.

His parish is sandwiched between the great Irish racecourses of Punchestown and the Curragh.

And on Saturday he was over to bless the horses at Tom Taaffe's stable, near Straffan, close to the K Club which will host the 2006 Ryder Cup.

Taaffe trains leading Cheltenham Gold contender Kicking King, who has made a remarkable recovery after being initially ruled out with illness.

The priest blessed Taaffe's contenders, and reports tham all to be in good order.

At the St Patrick's Day service, held in a conference room at the hotel, he prayed for more Irish winners at the Festival. There have been five already.

"I'm sure you won't want me to give a sermon. The old head isn't quite there," he joked to about 200 people.

He added: "We pray for winners. They are hard to get. And we pray for Irish winners, wherever they come from.

"The Irish horses are the best in the world, although the French are quite good as well.

We thanked God for Danoli, he got a lot of Irish people out of trouble
Father Sean Breen

"Say a few prayers for the books (the bookmakers) as well. And for one man, I'll use a code - DP (David Power).

"He's a good man for paying out - when they win!"

At one famous service some years ago, he prayed that the bookies would have enough money to pay out all the punters.

The congregation, many wearing shamrocks and carrying copies of the Racing Post, were asked to remember the late bookie Jimmy Ryan.

"I hope he's entertaining God as much as he entertained us," he said.

Father Breen told BBC Sport afterwards that he fancied Beef Or Salmon to win the Gold Cup on Friday.

And he will have a small bet - "nothing big" - on the Irish contender.

Barry Geraghty celebrates success on Moscow Flyer
The Irish have already had much to celebrate at Cheltenham this year

He caught the racing bug from his brother, a dentist, who was a keen follower of the turf.

At his first Festival in 1964, he saw the legendary Arkle, ridden by Tom's father Pat, win the first of his three Gold Cups.

In more recent times, he was part of the Heavenly Syndicate which owned OneWonOne, a horse that clocked up several wins.

But he does not wear his priest's collar to the races.

"I'm entitled to my privacy. I don't want all the attention," he said, although he is a well-known figure with Irish racegoers.

Father Breen regards the Festival as a great chance to catch up with old friends.

"It's like a checklist - if people aren't there, they are either ill or they are dead," said the priest, affectionately known as 'The Breener'.

He is not a fan of the new extended four-day Festival: "It's a bit greedy - there's no need to do that."

But he will forever remember the win of Irish hero Danoli in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle in the mid-1990s.

"We thanked God for Danoli, he got a lot of Irish people out of trouble," he recalled.

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