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Friday 15 December 2017

Walsh leads fine day for our jockeys

Bloody typical you might think. St Patrick's Day at the Cheltenham Festival and what's the main topic of conversation? Ruby Walsh? Willie Mullins? Not a chance.

Planning permission, that's what!

Beaming down from high on Cleeve Hill, which dominates the magnificent amphitheatre that is Cheltenham Racecourse, there's a gigantic white sign that's not unlike the iconic Hollywood sign on Beverly Hills.

In 50-foot high white letters that stretch across 270 feet of the hillside in front of a wooded area, even those with impaired vision can clearly read the words 'Paddy POWER'.

The bookmakers are claiming it's the world's largest sign. But already the protests have been flooding in. The local borough council's planning department is asking questions. They're not the only ones. The conservationists are up in arms. As are some who paid good money to advertise at the racecourse only to find themselves upstaged by Ireland's leading bookies chain.

"It's a monument to Cheltenham," Paddy said on local radio yesterday. "It's not meant to be a blot on the landscape. It's just a bloody big sign."



Revolt

With the Irish raiding party punching above its weight, and Irish jockeys dominating the proceedings, the sign might also be read as a cultural manifesto. The Paddies are revolting, if you'll pardon the expression.

Yesterday turned out to be another fine showcase of Irish talent.

Whatever bright spark designed the original St Patrick brand did a fine job. Green outfit, big hat, three-leafed shamrock and that business with the snakes is grabby stuff. And kinda cool. But I reckon someone missed a golden opportunity. One that mightn't be too late to rectify.

They should have put St Patrick on a horse. Simple. And, with our national day set to fall during the Cheltenham Festival for the next three years, well, you know it makes sense.

Irish jockeys have been on 11 of the 13 winners in the first two days of this great meeting. It's a phenomenal percentage. But that bald statistic hides a wealth of drama and thrilling personal stories.

When his sister Katie caused something of a sensation by storming to a historic first Festival victory yesterday in the first race on Poker de Sivola, older brother Ruby Walsh was among the first to give her an approving nod.

But consider the arc of Ruby's St Patrick's Day. Early in the afternoon the contrast between brother and sister's fortunes couldn't have been more pronounced.

Ruby's horse, the favourite Quel Esprit, fell at the second in the next race. And he took another tumble with Citizen Vic in the very next race, the RSA Steeple Chase. In the Champion Chase he came home fourth on the well-fancied Master Minded (4/5 fav). In the Coral Cup, his Willie Mullins-trained mount Deutschland didn't make much of an impression.

But Ruby, the champion, stuck at it. It's not just the Walsh way. It's an Irish jockey's way. The crowd showed huge respect and appreciation when Ruby won the Juvenile Novices' Hurdle on Sanctuaire, and in doing so put him one Festival win ahead of Arkle jockey Pat Taaffe who had 25 wins to his credit.

And Ruby and Katie weren't the only Irish warriors in the spotlight yesterday afternoon. When Davy Russell won the Steeple Chase on Michael O'Leary's Weapon's Amnesty (10/1) he immediately took the opportunity to fire an Exocet at controversial TV pundit John McCririck, who had dumped criticism all over Brian O'Connell who rode Tuesday's Supreme Novices' favourite, and many punters' banker, Dunguib, who finished third.

When the Channel 4 microphone was held up to him while he was still on the winner, Russell called for McCririck to publicly apologise to O'Connell.





PROUD

Later in the winner's enclosure, Davy declared: "In a sporting manner, those things shouldn't be said. We're sportsmen and we don't deserve that. Brian O'Connell did not deserve that. If he was at my level, or Ruby's, Timmy Murphy's or Tony McCoy's, we could take it on the chin. He's at the bottom of the ladder. He needs help, not criticism. Dunguib wasn't the best horse on the day yesterday. If you lost your money on him, take it on the chin. He had to. He lost as much as everybody else did. He doesn't need someone like John McCririck, who doesn't know one end of a horse from the other (criticising him)."

An Irish festival winner on St Patrick's Day. How do you feel after that, I ask Davy. "Very proud. Very proud," he says.

Trainer Colm Murphy is a quiet-spoken chap. Even when his horse Big Zeb, with Barry Geraghty on board, clinched the Champion Chase, Colm seemed as tranquil as buttermilk.

"Only a madman would be confident coming here," he said. "He can make a stupid little mistake. You can't make them in races like this. You just get punished. He was good today. I'd say I'm after using up a lot of my luck over here. We are fortunate to have had two very good horses (Brave Inca and Big Zeb). This makes up for a few of the bad days."

It seemed fitting that the sun finally broke through the heavy cloud for the presentation. Big Zeb had finally shown the English racing public why there's been a fuss about him in Ireland.

As he watched the proceedings Colm's father Patrick, told me how important Barry Geraghty had been in Big Zeb's performance. "Barry gave him a great ride," he said. "We were lucky to get him."

It could be that the Kauto Star vs Denman battle in the Gold Cup tomorrow won't be the highlight of the Festival. Now might it be the old chestnut, Ireland versus England.



spice

With Barry Geraghty and Ruby Walsh on two wins apiece going into today's racing, it's the Irish contingent scrapping it out among themselves that's adding the spice to this great event. Ruby is still favourite with the bookies to claim top jockey status. But Geraghty has been equally impressive. It's all to play for.

Other Irish notables to watch out for would include the performance of Dessie Hughes's four horses today. And, having seen the hype build up around what has been described as "the biggest raiding party ever sent to Britain", Willie Mullins will be hoping to add to his one win (Quevega in the Mares' Hurdle).

With Citizen Vic, Day Of A Lifetime, Deutschland, Quel Esprit, Golden Silver, Sports Line and others disappointing so far, there's added pressure on Willie's other horses to deliver between today and tomorrow.

But then this is a Festival for champions. And Edward O'Grady is among those who feels that, despite the questions, Cooldine has the ability to spring a major surprise in the Gold Cup. "Cooldine is coming to his best right now," he says.

"I think Imperial Commander has had some very good runs around this track and reserves his best for here. I tipped Denman two years ago but I'd be as opposite him now as I was positive for him then. I wish him well but I don't put him in the mix. Kauto Star and the other two would be mine rather than Denman."

Exciting times.

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