In 1987 and 1988, they returned home with just a single winner. In 1989, there was not even that small comfort, and in most of seasons since, a double has been the average score. In 1996, however, the gleam of anticipation in the eyes of the early arrivals is more striking than ever. There is suddenly a tangible belief that for those who kept the faith through the lean times, a rich reward is at hand.
Willie Mullins, who won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle with Tourist Attraction 12 months ago, illustrates the new situation perfectly. Six years ago, his brilliant bumper horse Wither Or Which might have been sold across the sea after his debut success. Now, he travels with a return ticket, and is one of Ireland's strongest contenders.
"We have to thank the Irish Turf Club for sponsoring more novice events which keeps the young horses at home," Mullins said, "and if you keep them for a year or two, people get attached to them. We're really seeing the benefits now. We could have a bumper year.''
A bet on performances during the Festival as a whole is always a good idea to fend of the need for a punt in every race, and with Richard Dunwoody odds-on to lift the Ritz Club Trophy as the meeting's leading jockey, the prices on the Irish return are the ones to study.
With serious challengers in almost every event, it is not impossible the visitors could equal, or even surpass, their record total of seven winners in 1977. Coral - the only Big Three firm offering odds - go 9- 1 about six winners, 20-1 for seven, and 33-1 for eight, and these are the three totals to be on.
The first two events could well go across the water, just as they did 12 months ago. Castle Sweep is an unconvincing favourite in the opener - he has won well enough but what has he beaten? - while Dance Beat (Jessica Harrington) and Beakstown (Paddy Mullins) boast wins in competitive handicaps despite their novice status. At the morning odds, preference must be for Beakstown (2.15).
Even before her recent setback, Draborgie looked a favourite to oppose in the Arkle Trophy, since her flat jumping style is unsuited to Cheltenham. At least four of the Irish runners could exploit any errors, but Manhattan Castle (next best 2.50) is the one to back, particularly if the rain arrives.
Maamur (4.05) is a value alternative to Unguided Missile and Percy Smollett (who has yet to win going left-handed) in the Ritz Club Chase while Stop The Waller (4.40), runner-up to Draborgie at Warwick earlier this year, has as good a chance as any in the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Chase for amateurs.
The best could be saved until last on the opening day. Twenty-four will go to post for the Gold Card Hurdle, but THE LAST FLING (nap 5.15) should be both an appropriate and rewarding winner.
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