Racing: Panel verdict is an away win for Brave Inca

Chris McGrath hears the selections of the professionals at a Cheltenham Festival preview night in a Co Kilkenny hotel

The way the seats are arranged, in a semicircle round a dais, is strongly reminiscent of a church. Indeed, several members of this congregation still have crosses blackened on to their foreheads, having arrived straight from Ash Wednesday mass. From their reverent deportment, it is not easy to judge which they might consider the more sacred ritual.

Judging from their conversation in the bar afterwards, however, none appears to have foresworn either alcohol or betting during Lent. On the contrary, they have assembled in this Kilkenny hotel specifically to ready their livers and wallets for the most almighty hammering of the year.

The Cheltenham Festival starts on Tuesday and none of the horses will have received a more thorough preparation. Some 300 devotees have gathered with notepads and solemn faces to listen while a panel of experts read the entrails of the form book.

Conor O'Dwyer is here, the jockey who delivered the Irish a Gold Cup on Imperial Call and two Champion Hurdles on Hardy Eustace. So is Tony Mullins, representing a great training dynasty, along with an emerging star of Irish racing, Paul Nolan. Mike Dillon of Ladbrokes and Alastair Down of Channel 4 are expected to have smuggled information out of Britain.

This is just one of many similar events held during the days before the Festival. Over the past two or three years, in fact, they have proliferated to the point of self-destruction. At first, it felt as though a blazing torch were being carried from beacon to beacon. But nowadays there are also preview nights in swanky London hotels, where corporate guests in black tie boorishly drown the opinions of the panel as the ice bucket clatters round the table.

Happily, the Kilkenny preview remained true to the original spirit, raising funds for the local Gaelic games association. True, the sponsorship of Ladbrokes permitted some slick presentation, with race videos and odds displayed on plasma screens, while the host, Brian Gleeson of RTE, was able to challenge the panel from the floor as he wandered with a microphone.

Gleeson - earnest, greying, bespectacled - could not dispel the aspect of a junior deacon with his menacing opening remarks. "We'll ask these lads to point us in the right direction," he said. "If they don't, they're finished."

Now that the Festival stretches to a fourth day, it seemed improbable that they would be finished by sunrise. They did not start until half past nine, after all, but they were sensibly confined to the principal races and the audience quickly established they could risk an occasional trip to the bar so long as they did not miss anything Mullins had to say.

He was soon into his stride. Sweet Wake is the Irish banker for the first race of the meeting, the AIB Supreme Novices' Hurdle on Tuesday. "We've never seen him off the bridle," Mullins said dismissively. "All we've seen is Paul Carberry with his backside in the air. So many of those, when he's just sitting there, they find nothing."

Next case? The Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. "Tony McCoy says Foreman won't get beat," Mullins declared. "He must have had a bang on the head." He reserves his deference for Nolan, who trains Accordion Etoile and suffers the tensions of his vocation vividly. A fellow in the bar claimed to have seen him throwing up during one of Accordion Etoile's races.

"I wish the race was tomorrow," Nolan said. "I've never seen a horse as well as him . He wasn't fit the last day he ran, but he jumped well against seasoned campaigners. I've never been so bullish about him."

Moving on to the Champion Hurdle, Mullins turned his guns back on McCoy, who rides Brave Inca. "Everyone has been hard on Barry Cash," Mullins said. "They go on about how much improvement the horse has made for McCoy. He's improved him half a length. Everyone said he would improve Baracouda two stone and he's dis-improved him. Saying that, I think Brave Inca will win."

Despite such trenchant entertainment, by the time the panel reached the Queen Mother Champion Chase, highlight of the second day, one white-haired farmer had nodded off. In fairness, he would be seen trying to prise information from the panel in the bar later, but he could not contribute to a collective gasp of horror when Mullins casually desecrated the name of Moscow Flyer. "He's an old man now," he said simply. "He's a lay."

He was still going strong when they staggered to the summit: the Gold Cup, for which the pride of Co. Limerick, Beef Or Salmon, is favourite. Mullins practically snorted. "He's after robbing huge money in small fields on soft ground," he said. "If he makes the same mistake at Cheltenham that he made at the fifth last at Leopardstown, he won't be mapped."

As in every church, some were ardent believers, some were agnostics, some just stared at the blonde one. Nobody, however, was planning on being made to wait for an afterlife to be paid out.

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