And they're off ... invasion of Cheltenham has begun
THE Irish invasion of Cheltenham has begun as hordes of punters prepared to wrap up warm for what is for many, the highlight of the racing calendar.
"Arrive early, pace yourself and remember to insulate properly," Dubliner Eamonn Heffernan advised as he prepared to fly out. "I should know - I've been going to Cheltenham since 1974," he added.
Tanya Kenny from Kilmainham was looking forward to the week's racing.
"This evening is the most fun," she said. "No one has lost any money yet. That won't be the case come the end of the week."
When asked what his favourite moment was, Charlie Walsh from Clonskegh replied: "I'm not telling you that. Are you mad? What happens in Cheltenham, stays in Cheltenham."
Irish racegoers will bet more than €125m over the course of the festival and 236,472 pints of Guinness will be poured.
"It's an Irish equine and human invasion," Noel O'Brien of the Turf Club said. "Cheltenham is where the best horses and the best jockeys battle it out - it's a clash of the Titans."
O'Brien has been attending the festival for 27 years and believes age-old national rivalry between Ireland and England adds to the festival's unique ambience.
"It's great to see Irish horses tear ahead, especially when it's on English soil," he said. "There is a great sense of history at Cheltenham. That's what makes it so special."
Conversation en route to the Cotswolds inevitably turned to 4,344-time winner AP McCoy - whose retirement will be the talk of this year's festival.
"If AP wins the Gold Cup on Friday there won't be a dry eye in the place," Rod O'Callaghan from Rathcoole said.
The festival has renamed this year's final race the AP McCoy Grand Annual Chase in his honour and bookmaker Paddy Power will serve up some 4,344 free pints of Guinness to thank the jockey for his outstanding career.
Today, all eyes are on trainer Willie Mullins who has five favourites racing.
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