Cheltenham 2002: A magical week of Jonjo, Ted and the Blarney Army

The annual exodus across the water has helped make the Festival the world's greatest race meeting.
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The Independent Online

A few years ago a distinguished, but temporarily insane, sports columnist reacted to the IRA's inconveniencing of the Grand National – it was delayed for two days by a bomb threat – with a call for the Irish to be banned from Cheltenham.

It was a proposition which provoked no more than an embarrassed cough, but then how could it be otherwise? The suggestion was fired from the hip, which is no place to launch an attack on the soul of the world's greatest race meeting. Cheltenham without the Irish would be the Prado without Goya. It would be Paris without tears. It would be New Orleans without a riff and a sigh. It would also, says the great horseman Ted Walsh, be a "bloody offence against humanity, a bit like shooting Santa Claus on Christmas Eve".

Last spring, Walsh, a winning rider and trainer at Cheltenham who also saddled the Grand National winner Papillon with his son Ruby aboard two years ago, was with all his compatriots required to go without the Festival as foot-and-mouth infested the hills. "It was an emptiness, one of life's little deaths," says Walsh. "Our world doesn't create so many things that are perfect, but if you are a hossman Cheltenham is one of them. I love Ascot, I love Melbourne, I love Punchestown, but I love Cheltenham above all because of the passion of it, because we all need a point in our lives, whatever we do, when we are ultimately tested, when all the measurements we apply to ourselves are set in place and we have to damn well see if we are good enough.

"I was a good enough rider and I was thrilled to win at Cheltenham, it was a mark of what I had achieved, and I always wanted it for my boy Ruby. But then I knew he would do it. When you are comparing me and Ruby as riders, you are dealing with different leagues. I was a good journeyman, dedicated, fit and tough and with a fair old racing brain. But on the best day I ever had, I never came near to the finesse and all-round quality Ruby has. He is a wonderful horseman over fences, demonstrating a rapport with horses that very few jockeys have. It was never set out as a goal for him winning at Cheltenham, or for me for that matter, because it is so implicit in the life of a boy who grows up around horses in Ireland. The place is just there, waiting like the gallops in the morning, like the work in the yard. You come to it and you hope pass muster. Seeing your boy do it though, to see him laughing coming into the winner's enclosure, that's better than doing it yourself. It's continuity in a big way."

The Irish bring continuity to Cheltenham, all right. They bring it like a sacrament on waves of optimism, all those at least who haven't lost their investment in the card schools of the ferry crossing. They bring it in hold-alls and even brown paper bags. They bring it in the assailed but unbroken body and spirit of Jonjo O'Neill, and also another Cork man, a boisterous little fellow whose party piece, at around 4am in the morning, for the last 16 years has been a near word-perfect impression of Michael O'Hehir's commentary of O'Neill's astonishing winning ride on Dawn Run for the Gold Cup of 1986.

For someone who had been marooned in North America for seven years, and who had missed the ritual that unfolds in the valley, that recounting in 1987 of the deeds of O'Neill and Dawn Run was like the re-creation of a spell. The impressionist took hours of persuasion, as apparently he always did, secure like a besieged and seductive woman in a bar who knows that her suitors will not easily tire. Eventually he stood on a barstool and brought the race back to life. He had every stride and gasp of it. He had Dawn Run and Jonjo apparently wilting at the last under the pressure of Wayward Lad and Forgive 'n' Forget, and then, stride by heart-stopping stride, he had the fightback, the gathering, inexorable belief that indeed they could do it and that, by God, they were doing it. So unforgettably that, as Hugh McIlvanney wrote at the time, "the euphoria was such that some of the hats sent spiralling in the air might have had heads in them for all the owners cared".

Now, at the end of the time-honoured recital some of the bar-room audience shuffle off for a few hours of sleep, some, perhaps more out of racing superstition than piety, go to the hotel room set aside for morning mass. All of them, however ragged and red-eyed, make the pilgrimage to the great course.

Walsh's hopes this year hinge most strongly on a Gold Cup contender, Commanche Court. He is not bullish, saying: "This year I have bits and pieces, but you never know. We could get the right going, something could happen. Something always happens at Cheltenham, something to lift the blood."

O'Neill, expanding his ambitions and confidence with the help of the powerful patronage of JP McManus, his settled into his imposing new quarters, Jackdaws Castle, an opulent parcel of 500 Gloucestershire acres. He has a bunch of promising youngsters, including the Triumph Hurdle contender Giacomo and the gifted Keen Leader, targetted for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle if the going isn't firmer than good, but this time O'Neill is perhaps more of an ultimate symbol of renewal and hope than someone rammed into the face of the insatiable winner Martin Pipe. O'Neill, like the Irish attachment to Cheltenham, is a combination of an epic poem and a battle cry.

He has gone to the limits of commitment on the course and along the more complex road of life. His spirit, he admits, was abused by the painful break-up of his first marriage, his body by cancer and the assorted iron-work required to repair a series of injuries, but he has re-asserted himself both as a trainer of vaulting ambition and a husband and devoted father of five, three of the children coming from his second marriage. Cheltenham has been his forge, as it has for all the jump jockeys, among whom he rates the fearless Tony McCoy "by a long way the greatest jumps rider we have ever seen".

As both a rider and a man, O'Neill defined himself at Cheltenham, not just in the Gold Cup wins on Alverton and Dawn Run and the Champion Hurdle successes with Dawn Run and Sea Pigeon, but in the pain of both defeat and injury. Years after the extraordinary Gold Cup win on Dawn Run, he was asked how vividly he remembered that withering fight up the rising ground. "I can see every grasshopper in the grass," he said.

Ban the Irish from Cheltenham, wrote the great sportswriter. Maybe, as McIlvanney might have surmised some years earlier, his head had flown away with his hat.