Racing / Cheltenham Featival: Irish restore buoyancy despite inflation: Paul Hayward sees reserve swept away as action on the track ignites the Festival spirit

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'I TAKE the view that if you're not at Cheltenham then you must be dead,' Stuart Barnes, England's new rugby union stand-off, said before the Champion Hurdle here yesterday. At mid-day, though, you would have thought the zombies had risen from the grave determined to make this year's Festival the most sullen in recent times.

Hardly surprising. Given the national mood of introspection, the 1993 Festival was never going to be Woodstock, and nor, with a budget unfolding in far away London, would the punters who frequent this unfailingly dramatic arena be behaving as if entering the final three days of their existence, as they would in happier times. It seemed to reflect the defeatism of the country that police coolly informed racegoers they had a 3,600-1 chance of being robbed or assaulted.

The cheer that greeted the start of the first race was bronchial and unconvincing. People complained about 'a lack of atmosphere', and in the town, hotel barmen peered disconsolately from their doorways anticipating a rush that never materialised. Maybe we really have lost the capacity for laughter and forgetting (or perhaps it was just the 100 per cent mark-up on hotel rooms).

But these were just the early thoughts. The dangers of diagnosing nationwide gloom (or nationwide anything) were amply illustrated when Ireland, that ransacked store of bloodstock, captured the very first event with Montelado and swept away the reserve, the self-denial, that had characterised the pre-racing rituals. On to the stage walked Ollie Hannon, Montelado's owner, to say of the Irish desire for success at the world's best jumping meeting: 'We feel it and we accept it, and we're pleased to have had this winner not for ourselves but for the people who wanted to see it.'

It was delivered with an apple- sized lump in the throat and opened a new shaft in the mine of humility. But hang on. Could Montelado's win really be just a heroic gesture to the Irish people? Only if you ignore the fact that somebody placed a win bet of pounds 4,000 on the horse with the leading rails bookmaker, Victor Chandler, and came away pounds 18,000 richer.

The temperature, the adrenalin count, continued to rise all afternoon with Travado's defeat of Wonder Man in the Arkle Chase, Granville Again's winning surge in the Champion Hurdle and Givus A Buck's grinding victory over Country Member, one of the week's bankers, in the Ritz Club Chase. There was even a second triumph for the Irish, with Fissure Seal in the last.

So the racing saved us. From the moans about bunches of flowers rising in price from pounds 2.50 to pounds 6.50 for Festival week; from the pains in the wallet induced by having to part with pounds 50 for a members' enclosure ticket; from the sense, in the betting ring, that 'all the big men have gone', as testified by a representative of Ireland's powerful Sean Graham bookmakers.

Big men? They must have been giants. It seems not to impress the regulars of the betting jungle that punters were still betting yesterday in tens of thousands of pounds. A big-shot placed pounds 30,000 on Country Member in the fourth with the expectation of picking up pounds 20,000. He lost it, as did the man who threw pounds 15,000 at the same horse, only to see it held off in one of those bewitching Cheltenham finishes.

The absence of superstars contributed to the sombre early mood (the Champion Hurdle was the most open in recent memory), but the quality of the action more than repaid the faith of the 35,051 (242 down on last year) who risked their money, and their spirits, on this unwinnable board game.

After their elation we saw the more prosaic side of racing when Harry de Bromhead, trainer of Fissure Seal, explained why the horse had been so named. 'He is owned by a syndicate of four dentists,' De Bromhead said, 'and takes his name from a seal used in children's teeth to stop decay.'

It can't always be exotic.