Racing: Irish eyes are looking to Festival

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The last few days have rubbished the idea that ice dulls the appetite. While Britain has succumbed to the big chill, the emphasis has necessarily switched to Leopardstown's Christmas festival and concentrated our minds on what the jump racing season is all about.

Barely a contest has gone past at the Dublin course without a reminder of winter racing's raison d'etre, the Cheltenham festival, which starts 10 weeks tomorrow. Istabraq, Dorans Pride, Noble Thyne and, the greatest of them all, Danoli, have all won to fuel both the patriotic instincts of their countrymen and the anticipation of anyone who enjoys sport in its purest sense.

March's fiesta in the Cotswolds is the sort of event that could be run successfully by a management that fails to organise the brewery party. It seems they might indeed be in charge when you enjoy the personal space felt by Japanese train commuters and the bladder-busting queues for the latrines at Prestbury Park. But Cheltenham has the finest horses, the finest course and, most of all, the annual arm wrestle between the finest beasts from either side of the Irish Sea.

Cheltenham is the palatable face of Anglo-Irish conflict, where the only thing spilled is alcohol on jacket lapels. The Irish have enjoyed putting one over the Brits ever since Cromwell and his lads visited their homeland and made a nuisance of themselves in the 17th century. After a tract of barren years, Hibernia once again has the money horse power to do damage at the foot of Prestbury Hill.

If there is an embodiment of the Festival's attraction, it comes in the shape of Danoli and his trainer, Tom Foley. The horse is very good and he tries hard, the man is very good without trying to be much more than himself. Foley represents Ireland against Britain, the blue-collar trainer against the, in certain cases despicable, easily-gifted gentry of the sport. "When it all comes down to it, it is a friendly competition between the Irish and the English," he said yesterday. "It's what makes racing."

Foley, a man so down to earth he prefers to sleep in the lads' hostel when he attends the festival, endures enquiries about Danoli with a patience that makes Job look snappy. Foley was glad not for himself when Danoli won the Denny Gold Medal Chase on Thursday, but rather for the horse. "That put him back where he's entitled to be," Foley, the patron saint of Gloucestershire hoteliers, said. "When things start going wrong people lose faith quickly. It was nice for the people to appreciate the old Danoli and I heard lots of them saying how they were going to book their tickets for Cheltenham after that."

Danoli is so versatile - or unpredictable - he may be entered for three races at Cheltenham: the Arkle (Novices') Chase over two miles, the Sun Alliance (Novices') Chase over three miles and a furlong, and the Gold Cup itself over three miles, two furlongs and 110 yards. His actual target will emerge after another race in January and then a shot at the highest guns, including the Gold Cup holder, Imperial Call, in the Hennessy Gold Cup over three miles at Leopardstown on 2 February. "Imperial Call can't learn very much from the likes of us but I'm sure we can learn an awful lot from him," Foley said. "I'm a little afraid about it but he's always run better against good horses."

Danoli has run several times for Foley against Michael Hourigan's Dorans Pride. The insinuation from certain literature is that these two men would rip each other apart with their bare teeth if left together. The reality, it seems, is less gladiatorial. "A lot of all that is paper talk," Foley said. "I just see it as two good horses who are good for racing, and when they meet again let the best one win."

Dorans Pride has graduated to fences with great ease this season and recorded his fourth consecutive victory over the larger obstacles at Leopardstown on Saturday. This performance looked no more taxing than a wander through the buttercups of a summer meadow but the accountancy department of Ladbrokes were persuaded to cut him to 12-1 for the Gold Cup. He may not even contest the race. "It must not be forgotten that he is still a novice," Hourigan said yesterday. "A lot of people are dreaming and we will see how things go over the next two months before thinking about the Gold Cup."