Racing: McManus seeking a sting in the tale: Richard Edmondson has his card marked for Cheltenham by the legendary Irish gambler

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The Independent Online
LIKE another ring, the one where pugilists perform, the betting ring at the Cheltenham Festival is neither circular nor a place for those with timid dispositions.

In terms of vibrancy and proximity to fellow revellers, it is like a Western saloon after payday. And if there is one man who is capable of pushing aside the doors and stopping the piano this week it is J P McManus, perhaps the most celebrated gambler in the history of the meeting in the Cotswolds.

John Patrick (his full Christian names are rarely employed) McManus has joined his fellow Irishmen at the three-day Festival for almost 20 years now. During that time he has had winners, initially solely as a backer and later also as an owner, maiming the layers along the way. For these feats he has leaped into punters' lore because it has always been rather difficult to feel sorry for a bookmaker. Rather like watching a wasp getting snaffled by a dog.

As usual, McManus has been studying live racing in Ireland this winter and catching up with events in Britain via his satellite link-up. A record Irish attendance is expected at this year's Festival, and McManus cites economic reasons why the visitors should have another good year to follow their six winners of 1993. 'Over the last two or three seasons I don't think the better store horses (the promising fledgling jumpers) were sold to England,' he said this week. 'As a result, racing in Ireland became more competitive and they did better at the Festival.'

J P will go into battle on Tuesday with tenets he has developed over the years, and it would be imprudent not to follow his advice. Lesson No 1 is to attend if at all possible, to gauge the ground and the condition of your horse. 'My experience over the years at Cheltenham is that when the ground gets fast you should run out of the place,' he says. (This lesson is vital this year as Ireland has had a very wet winter and all their horses have soft-ground form).

McManus advocates holding on to the funds until the 11th hour. 'The problem is that if you have your mind firmly committed to backing a horse, you find it difficult to change it when you get to the course,' he says.

'There are 20 races at the Festival and you might take a view on only half a dozen of them. Remember, you are not obliged to have a bet in every race, and just because it's a championship race, it doesn't mean that's the only one to play in.'

It is the championship events that steal the focus, however, and none more so than the Gold Cup. McManus expects Jodami to win again, though he will not be supporting this view from the wallet. 'It's hard to oppose Jodami, but I won't back him because the price is too skinny,' he says.

The Champion Hurdle betting will be dominated by Oh So Risky and the Irish challenger, Fortune And Fame. McManus favours the latter but will not 'play' (that strange verb used by regular punters considering the ruinous possibilities) unless the ground is softer than good.

In the Queen Mother Champion Chase, McManus favours either Remittance Man or, more interestingly, Deep Sensation. 'The horse did it well at Cheltenham last year and maybe he's a spring horse,' McManus says. 'If I was backing Remittance Man I'd prefer he wasn't in the race.'

However, if J P McManus recommends one single wager for Cheltenham it is Danoli in the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle. 'If you have to back a short-priced horse, he looks the best,' he says.

Even here there is a proviso, though. Danoli travels from Ireland for the first time this week, and his worst performance this season came after an arduous journey to Leopardstown. 'Before I'd back him I'd like to have a peep at him in the paddock at Cheltenham, just to see if he was all right,' McManus says.

These are McManus's public thoughts, but it would be no surprise to see a run this week on any of the four horses he himself has entered. Take heed of Front Line, Mucklemeg, Gimme Five and Time For A Run. The last name may be one the bookmakers use as their motto this week when they see the form of J P McManus shuffling into view.