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Cheltenham: Sizing Europe leads Irish green sweep

By Frank Keogh at Cheltenham

Derek O'Connor celebrates victory on Chicago Grey
Jockey Derek O'Connor waves the tricolour after Chicago Grey's win

The Irish are an essential, intoxicating ingredient in the cocktail that is the Cheltenham Festival.

Thousands travel over for the annual pilgrimage to the home of jump racing where their best horses do battle with their English, and sometimes French, rivals.

While at home, their economy is battered, the spirit remains unbroken at this four-day carnival, which hosts the best National Hunt horses in the world and witnesses some of the best partying known to man.

On Wednesday, six of the seven races were won by Irish-trained horses. A Festival first for one day. And the final winner, appropriately called Cheltenian, was based in Ireland until four months ago.

Sizing Europe won the day two highlight the Queen Mother Champion Chase, for trainer Henry de Bromhead and jockey Andrew Lynch.

The other Irish winners were Chicago Grey, First Lieutenant, Bostons Angel, Carlito Brigante and What A Charm.

First Lieutenant, winner of the Neptune Novices' Hurdle, is owned by one of Ireland's most familiar faces - Michael O'Leary, the boss of budget airline Ryanair, who later celebrated a double when Carlito Brigante won the Coral Cup.

O'Leary's firm flew thousands of people over to England for the Festival, but the man himself choked back tears as he revealed his Dad was seriously ill.

"My father is suffering with cancer. At the moment he is going through chemotherapy," he said, moving briefly away from his familiar, jocular tone.

"He owned racehorses and bred the 'disease' into us. This win is a tribute to him and he might not be with us for many more Cheltenhams. It's an emotional day.

"He would be very proud of the horse, very proud of my brother who bought him and probably less proud of me because I'm an idiot for pouring so much money into National Hunt racing but we all have our crosses to carry.

"Dad will be watching at home. He'll be on the phone already. My mother thinks I should have worn a tie."

Away from his business, O'Leary owns the Gigginstown House Stud which has produced some notable Cheltenham winners, including the 2006 Gold Cup victor War of Attrition. He is a good man to sum up what this meeting means to his compatriots.

"The Irish come to Cheltenham because this is like religion. We grew up as children following Cheltenham first and the Catholic church second," he said.

"We don't get overly worried about the economic cycle this week as Cheltenham takes care of lot of little problems.

"We've laid on extra flights this week. I've been very surprised by the demand."

This will encourage Irish trainers to run horses at the meeting and also encourage Irish racegoers to travel over to Cheltenham

Cheltenham clerk of the course Simon Claisse

When I ask his father's name, he deadpans: "Mr O'Leary", though it transpires his father's name is Ted. Father Ted. Had to be really.

"He's aged 77 or 78, something like that. My mother will give out to me for forgetting the number," says the Irishman.

There are few more resonant English tones than those of the BBC's great former commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan, now aged 93.

He has seen nearly everything at Cheltenham, but even racing's still bright knight rolled his eyes at me when the sixth Irish winner went in.

Perhaps we should not be surprised as this Festival has a habit of throwing up unpredictable results.

"It reminds me of 1962 when not a single favourite won - and I think five of them were Irish trained," said the man known as the Voice of Racing.

Three-quarters of the first four home in each of Wednesday's races were trained, or formerly trained in Ireland - 21 out of 28.

But not every Irish punter will have drunk to a good day as few were favourites with winners priced at 5-1, 7-1, 16-1, 10-1, 16-1 and 9-1.

A £1 accumulator on those six horses would have paid £1,525,919. More than a one in a million day, then. Wonder if anyone had it.

The Englishmen who thwarted an Irish magnificent seven - a green sweep, you could say - were jockey Richard Johnson, the one-time boyfriend of the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips, and Somerset-based trainer Philip Hobbs.

Despite being bought for £210,000 at Brightwells' Cheltenham sale in November 2010, and with a name that sounds suspiciously like Cheltenham, the last-race winner Cheltenian went off a 14-1 shot in the Champion Bumper.

"I looked at the papers in the morning and was surprised he was 12-1 because the form of his win last time at Kempton has worked out well," said Hobbs.

"I only met his owner Roger Brookhouse six months ago and the most important thing for him was to have a Cheltenham Festival winner. It's amazing that he was bought at the Cheltenham sales as well."

Overhearing our conversation was Dubliner Alastair Haughton, who sneaked into the winner's enclosure after the last race on his first visit to Cheltenham.

"I was taken away by the atmosphere today. We took a photo of the stands with all those people and it's just unbelievable," said the 23-year-old who works for the Central Bank.

"I didn't expect it to be quite as big an event as it is, and despite the economy in Ireland I've heard there's nearly 10,000 Irish people here."

Michael O'Leary celebrates One Lieutenant's win
Michael O'Leary (front) celebrates First Lieutenant's victory

He lost on the day but was galvanised by the atmosphere, the Irish success and is hoping for a winner trained in Gloucestershire by an Irishman on Thursday when Sky Sports presenter Rachel Wyse rides in the concluding charity race.

"Rachel has got a horse, Silent Jo, owned by JP McManus that is trained by Jonjo O'Neill and AP McCoy has been helping her out with her riding," he said.

"I'm friends with her brother Ross so hopefully she will go well."

It runs in the St Patrick's Day Charity Derby, although you could argue Paddy's Day 2011 came 24 hours early at Cheltenham.

Trainer Ted Walsh, the father of all-time leading Cheltenham Festival jockey Ruby, called it "a freaky day".

"If you spoke to the Irish lads on Tuesday morning they would have said we're going to have a bad Cheltenham," he said.

"But back home there are hugely competitive races every day for a small little country.

"Away from the big meetings, the prize money in England a lot of the time is so bad. For some of the races, it is pathetic, they are worth a couple of grand. There are point-to-point races worth that much."

Cheltenham clerk of the course Simon Claisse put a positive spin on things.

"It's been a fantastic day for the Irish, especially when you consider they weren't coming here with a lot of live hopes," he said.

"It's unprecedented - they've had four winners in a day, but never five or six. This will encourage Irish trainers to run horses at the meeting and also encourage Irish racegoers to travel over to Cheltenham."

Earlier, O'Leary was asked why he loved racing.

"I'm Irish. That's a stupid question. We love drink, girls and horses, although we sometimes get the order inverted," he joked.

As I left the racecourse, a rousing rendition of the Fields of Athenry filled the air from a group of Irish punters.

"We had dreams and songs to sing," was the heady refrain. And plenty to shout about too.

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see also
Sizing Europe wins Champion Chase
16 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham Festival - day two as it happened
16 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham images
18 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham Festival 2011 schedule
23 Feb 11 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing

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