Racing: Irish making flat contest a bumper issue

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IT TOOK the Cheltenham Gold Cup years to establish itself as jump racing's premier event, while the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe started life as a seller, but there have been no such problems for the Festival Bumper. Instituted just seven years ago, the race is now one of the strongest betting heats of the three-day meeting, and is discussed with as much animation as the Gold Cup itself.

Well, it is in Ireland, anyway. In Britain, the idea of a National Hunt race without any obstacles is still one which many racegoers find impossible to grasp. Across the water, though, bumpers are a serious business. On Ladbroke Hurdle day at Leopardstown last month, the betting was fiercer on the bumper than it was on the feature race, and the Festival Bumper has quickly been taken to Irish hearts. It is not just another race in which they have an excellent chance of success. It is often seen as a chance to pay the bills for the entire week.

The most plausible reason for the popularity of NH Flat races in Ireland, and the Festival race in particular, is offered by Paul Cashman, of the Cork bookmakers Liam Cashman. ``It's about dreams,'' he says. ``The horses in the race could be anything, like Florida Pearl [the 1997 winner], and Montelado, who went and won the Supreme Novice Hurdle the year after. Everyone thinks they've got a star, and they want to put the hard cash down.''

Coral opened a book on the race last week, the first British bookie ever to do so at such an early stage. Before it goes to their heads, though, it should be pointed out that Cashman, and many other Irish layers, started betting on the Bumper last autumn.

``This year's race is far and away the most punted-on race of the entire Festival,'' he says, ``and it's the best betting race since the Bumper was started. Back to when it began, I have always had a heavily-loaded book for one horse, like Tiananmen Square, Wither Or Which or Mucklemeg. People come on to me for a bet and tell me that I'm mad to lay them, because the horse is going to win by a distance, but this year, 12 of them have said that. I've laid 12 horses all to lose amounts between pounds 10,000 and pounds 20,000. That suits me just fine, but the bad news for me is that I can't see anything outside of those ones winning.''

Clear-favourite at 9-2 with Coral (and joint-favourite at a much fairer 7-1 with Cashmans) for this year's Bumper is Youlneverwalkalone, trained by Christy Roche and owned by J P McManus. The same connections travelled to last year's event with Joe Mac, the favourite at 6-4 after one of the most sustained gambles of recent years. He came to win his race with two furlongs to run, but could not get past Alexander Banquet. Down in the ring, bookies were punching the air and dancing jigs.

``That would have cost us the guts of a quarter of a million,'' Cashman says. ``If that and Dorans Pride had won, it would have been a close-the- doors job. Every bookie has a limit, and we all had it up to the gills.''

For Roche, the memory of last year's reverse is ``water under the bridge'', but he is cautious with predictions for Youlneverwalkalone. ``He's only had one run, he's a big weak horse and he's done very little since,'' the trainer said yesterday. ``He'll do a bit of work in a fortnight's time and we'll make a decision then. If he's improved, he'll go, but as for all the hype, that's being created by bookmaking firms to make sure horses keep being backed.''

Both Roche and Cashman believe that Biliverdin, another 7-1 chance, will be the horse to beat next month. The winner of a valuable bumper at Fairyhouse last season, and another last weekend, he will be suited by the good ground which often prevails at Cheltenham.

British hopes of only a second win in eight runnings of the Bumper may rest with Martin Pipe's Golden Alpha, or one of Mark Pitman's trio of Canasta, John David and Monsignor (Devil's Advocate, another of Pitman's bumper team, is more likely to wait for Aintree). Whatever the outcome, few racegoers will leave early on the Festival's middle day.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL BUMPER: Latest odds (Coral): 9-2 Youlneverwalkalone, 7-1 Biliverdin, Golden Alpha, 10-1 Give It A Hollow, 12-1 Devil's Advocate, 14-1 Canasta, Kildash Castle, Mr Lamb, 16-1 Billywill, Ingonish, Red Morocco, 20-1 others.