`It's time to watch the fellahs in the big hats'

Matt Tench spends a day among the many Irishmen who make an annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham Festival
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The Independent Online
Deep in the heart of the Arkle Bar, Finbar isn't sure where he is. "I can't remember if I'm at a funeral, off sick or what," he says. "It'll come back to me."

The one place he won't be is out on the rails, where a prying television camera might betray him to his employers. "We'll be here all meeting," says Finbar of the handy spot a length and a half from the bar.

Finbar and his friends, Pat and John (some names have been changed to protect the guilty of conscience), are from County Cork and part of what may be the most benign exodus in the history of a country that is accustomed to mass movements. Around 5,000 Irishmen make the annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham, and few leave disappointed.

"I've been coming 20 years and it gets better every year," Pat says. "There's a buzz about the place we can't resist.

"It's the best National Hunt there is," Finbar adds. "They go at a terrific lick. There are no tactics here. Nobody avoids Cheltenham."

Even a local inflation rate that would put Kenneth Clarke out of a job is greeted with tolerance. "I don't know that the money really matters. We know the prices are up this week. We'd do the same ourselves," Pat says.

There is much talk of wives but no chance of the distaff side being invited to join the party

"What we do is ring them up in the evening and say our backs are hurting, and we're not enjoying it, and how we miss them," Finbar says.

The Festival began badly for the Irish, with the nation which produced seven successes last year emerging winnerless from the opening day's hostilities. In common with most of their countrymen, Finbar, Pat and John were nursing their bruises before yesterday's first race. "I think we could see some strokes pulled today. It's time to watch the fellahs in the big hats," Finbar says.

Just then J P McManus, owner of Istabraq - the Irish banker of the meeting, appears on a TV screen. "And there's the fellah with the biggest hat of all," Finbar adds in a tone close to veneration.

Only Pat backed Istabraq, but all three cheered him home. There was approval of every aspect of his Irishness. For jockey Charlie Swan: "Oh sure, everybody knows Charlie. He's the most approachable fellah you could want." For trainer Aidan O'Brien: "A lovely unassuming fellah." And for McManus: "J P is the man." The second Irish victory, by Florida Pearl in the closing bumper, went some way to restoring national pride.

Finbar explained that they did not back horses just because the beasts in question were Irish ("betting is not about sentiment") but if their horse was beaten, they would always cheer an Irish one home. Which explained why all would be rooting for Danoli in today's Gold Cup, although none was certain to support him financially.

"He's our Desert Orchid. He's the horse who's in the colours of the housewives of Ireland," John said.

Pat, who was there for Dawn Run's victory in 1986, reckons a Danoli triumph would be even bigger. "It will be up there with Arkle," he says. "Arkle was the greatest there has ever been, but Danoli would be an unbelieveable achievement. If he wins, there will be a riot here."

We have been warned.