Racing: A crucial day dawns for two Irishmen returning to a spiritual home

Hard cash not flash defines McManus the biggest hitter
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The Independent Online
WHEN Charlie Swan is legged into Istabraq's saddle before the Cheltenham Hurdle this afternoon there will be no flamboyant or nervous words from connections. He is not going to hear anything like "for God's sake give this one a good hiding because I've got my conkers on it".

There will indeed be lots of conkers (by any normal rationalisation) riding on Istabraq, but the man who will place the biggest bet is not given to great acts of emotion. "Enjoy yourself," J P McManus will say, "do your best."

They call John Patrick McManus "the Sundance Kid", which is perhaps the most inappropriate sobriquet in racing. The nickname suggests a figure with sequins, a white suit perhaps, and a thrusting manner. J P is actually thunderously unflashy, an earnest character at the races in his long dark coat. You half expect him to start extolling the virtues of Mormonism.

"A lot of people wouldn't recognise him," Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's managing director, says. "He merges with the crowd and only a few, such as the serious group he has got involved in racing, would know who and where he is.

"He is pleasant but he is not Dave Allen and he certainly does not go out of his way to court the limelight. He is essentially a private man who just gets on and does it."

J P tries to get on at an early price and do the bookmakers. It is something he has affected with uncommon frequency since Mister Donovan became the first horse to carry his emerald green and gold-hooped colours to success at the Festival in the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle of 1982. McManus won a reported pounds 250,000, which, in his permanently understated style, he referred to as "a nice little touch".

J P McManus was 47 last Tuesday, but a more significant day for him would have been Sunday, when a memorial mass was held for John Durkan at Newmarket. Durkan was the man who found him Istabraq before leukaemia located and claimed the 31-year-old would-be trainer.

In the Gold Cup, J P McManus fancies Rough Quest each-way and in the Festival Bumper he advances his own Joe Mac, who is named after his great friend and Limerick hurler Joe McKenna. But most of all J P would like to win this afternoon's Champion Hurdle: for the championship race kudos, for the punting money and, most of all, for John Durkan.