Ireland keeps hold of jewels

Sue Montgomery says the visitors' success at Cheltenham owes much to the economy
Click to follow
HORSES are part of life in Ireland, the Irish are part of life at Cheltenham, and the unforgettable scenes last Thursday after Imperial Call became the first Irish-trained Gold Cup winner for a decade left no doubt as to the importance of his victory.

Among the unstoppable, deliriously happy human tide that surged, bearing tricolours and banners into the victor's circle was the first link in the triumphant chain. Tom O'Donnell, a 70-year-old retired pharmacist from the small town of Taghmon, in Co Wexford, was there to greet the horse whose existence he planned, and who had for him realised every breeder's dream.

Like many in rural Ireland, O'Donnell has long had "a horse or two about the place" and one of them is Princess Menelek, a minor point-to-point winner more notable for her robust physique and good bloodlines than her talent. O'Donnell acquired her nine years ago for pounds 5,000 and she justified his judgement by producing the future Gold Cup winner to the first tryst he arranged for her - with the well-bred young sire Callernish.

"I've been trying for something like 40 years to breed a good one," O'Donnell said. "And this just shows that if you keep going long enough, it can happen. Mind you, I didn't know it at the time. He wasn't a great-looking foal. Couldn't go to the sales because of a skin allergy and I sold him for pounds 3,500." Shortly before the Gold Cup, Imperial Call's owner turned down pounds 250,000 for the seven-year-old.

The resurgence in the fortunes of Irish-trained horses was one of the most notable features of last week's festival. The invaders brought over seven winners, their best score since the same number in 1977 and one bettered only by the eight in 1958.

But the key word here is trained. Irish-bred horses have always done well at Cheltenham. No fewer than 13 of them won last week - the fact is that jumping horses produced in Ireland are, broadly, better than their English counterparts. Of course there are exceptions, but in the 30 years since the best of them all, Arkle, came over to win the third of his Gold Cups, 22 winners of steeplechasing's championship have been Irish- foaled.

There are a host of reasons why: Ireland's breeders have long had environmental, fiscal, climatic, historic and genetic advantages working for them. The turn of the Irish trainers on the wheel of fortune, however, is down to market forces. Those across the water are neither better nor worse than they have always been, but a man is only as good as the horses in his care, and English trainers waving blank cheques during the boom buying years of the Eighties depleted much of Ireland's promising ammunition. It was like Liverpool FC disposing of their youth squad year after year.

Such activities are great for the bank balance in the short-term, but any drain of talent is ultimately bad for morale. The nadir was the Cheltenham whitewash of 1989, preceded by two one-winner years and followed by three with just two victories. But since the bite of recession in Britain, the Irish have been allowed to keep more of their young athletes, the proof of which was seen last week. And if Imperial Call gets the go-ahead to lead today's St Patrick's Day parade in the Cork town of Macroom, the Pope himself would be hard pressed to draw a bigger or more faithful crowd.