On Tuesday morning, bookmakers were offering 100-1 about the Irish returning home with six or more winners. Shawiya, Shuil Ar Aghaidh, in the Stayers' Hurdle, and the Cathcart winner, Second Schedual, brought up the half- dozen yesterday, and the cheers that greeted each return to the winners' enclosure implied that more than a few spectators had taken those odds.
Maher was happy to admit that most of the throng on the podium had backed Shawiya at 25-1. 'As the Irish say, we had a little tickle,' he said, though their ante-post vouchers were close to being worthless after the filly suffered a minor injury earlier this week. 'It was touch and go right up to this morning,' Maher said. 'I had just got to bed at six thirty and then I got a phone call at seven saying she was on her way.'
'She was bought privately for breeding and by now she should have been going to stud, but she has turned out a little better than expected, culminating in this, which is unreal.'
Charlie Swan, Shawiya's jockey, led half a mile from home and was forced to drive his mount out to hold off Amazon Express. Thirty five minutes later he switched to waiting tactics on Shuil Ar Aghaidh, who passed the pacemaker Pragada on the run-in to take the Stayers' Hurdle. This was Swan's fourth success of the meeting, bringing him the Ritz Club Trophy for the Festival's leading rider.
The winning trainer, Paddy Kiely, has half a dozen horses near Waterford, and could have been forgiven a smug grin as runners saddled by Martin Pipe and David Nicholson were led in behind Shuil Ar Aghaidh. The Kiely's family has been entwined with that of the winner for 50 years, and as she is a mare the dynasty is not finished yet.
'My father started breeding from the family line and my brother Matthew bred Shuil Ar Aghaidh,' Kiely said. 'The original dam was called Chain Gang, and the line may be older than myself (he is 52). She was close enough at the bottom of the hill and I knew she wouldn't be the one to crack.'
Irish backers may have been thinking along similar lines after Second Schedual and General Idea gave them the forecast in the Cathcart Chase. Brendan Sheridan, on General Idea, threw enough at his mount in a desperate finish to incur a four-day ban for misuse of the whip, but it was still not enough to drag him past Adrian Maguire.
Maguire, the Gold Cup-winning jockey last year, had only a jarring fall to show for his endeavours on the first two days, but Second Schedual completed a double for him yesterday. In the previous race, the Grand Annual Chase, Maguire had kept Space Fair galloping when he seemed close to exhaustion to give Richard Lee his first Festival winner.
Swan, Maguire and Scudamore were the only jockeys to partner more than one winner, and before the County Hurdle, the 'getting out' race, the season's leading rider, Richard Dunwoody, had not even managed that.
Desperate punters flung their last small change at Spinning, the 7-4 favourite, but although he led over the last, Dunwoody, on Thumbs Up, had swept past him and ran on to win by six lengths. It must be a long time since the winning jockey in the County has punched the air with such vigour at the line.
'We started the week well with Travado (winner of the Arkle Chase),' said Nick Henderson, trainer of Thumbs Up. 'We've had a few hiccups along the way, but we've come out smiling.'
So have the Irish, but they will have had their hiccups last night.
Cheltenham Festival attendance over the three days rose to 120,381 from last year's total of 118,786. Yesterday's figure was up 1,388 to 51,330.
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