| 8.5°C Dublin

Bookies get a bashing, then a great Irish party begins

SOAP stars and reality show winners were out celebrating with Irish punters overnight, as Paddy's Day came early at Cheltenham.

Ex-EastEnders actress Lucy Benjamin and former Brookie babe Claire Sweeney joined hordes of punters in the Irish bars around the Cotswolds as the party got into full swing.

Irish punters partied hard into the early hours after taking the Cheltenham bookies to the cleaners in a glorious opening day.

Trepidation and anxiety gave way to ecstasy as travelling punters partied the night away with money from the bookies' satchels.

Among those enjoying the craic was former EastEnders actress and reality TV star Lucy Benjamin.

Benjamin (40) and scores of Irish revellers were treated to Irish dancing and music at Queens hotel in Cheltenham which was the place to be.

In June 2006, Benjamin appeared on The X Factor Battle of the Stars, where she was the outright winner and took part in the 2009 version of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. The popular actress joined in the fun and festivities that come when the Irish have a great day at the races.

Such was the level of excitement generated by the Irish that O'Neill's bar were handing out St Patrick's Day leprechaun hats to delighted patrons.

There were two names on the lips of every Irishman in the Cotswolds, 'Ruby' and 'Willie' after the two Irish legends stole Cheltenham Tuesday.

A punter, who told me that this was his 36th year in a row attending the festival, said that he had rarely seen this level of excitement generated at the festival.

"The roar that went up today in the parade ring for Willie's winners was reminiscent of the days of Istabraq, Hardy Eustace or Florida Pearl," he said.

There may be a number of Irish a bit worse for wear in the Guinness Village today where they gathered to watch Big Zeb's attempts to win back-to-back victories in the Queen Mother.

The punters who dug deep for Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle were convinced that Colm Murphy's speedy chaser could do the business in the two-mile event.

IRISH band The Hothouse Flowers are set to take centre stage at Cheltenham racecourse tomorrow night when they perform live at the track to celebrate St Patrick's Day. The Don't Go singers will perform from 10.30pm, with hundreds of Irish fans expected to return to the course after the last race finishes, to check out the talented group in action.

For those who fancy something more traditional to celebrate our national feast day, there will be plenty of craic all round the course throughout the day, with live music and dancing, a special St Patrick's Day Parade, Irish Fashion awards and seven races.

Those who make the effort by dressing in green on the day will also be in line to win prizes for the best St Patrick's Day outfits.

Highlight of the racing day is the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, which promises to be another outstanding contest.

Meanwhile racing legend Henry Cecil will be guest of honour at the first ever St Patrick's Day Derby which aims to raise over £150,000 for Cancer Research.

hnews@herald.ie