Crisis? What crisis? The Irish are back

Economic disaster hasn't dampened Ireland's enthusiasm for racing's premier festival. Sue Montgomery on a week to revive Celtic spirits

Back home, the Celtic Tiger has been silent, rolling over like a pussycat. But at Cheltenham this week there has been an echo of the old roar. As they have for decades, the Irish have made their presence felt at one of the sporting world's spring rituals, the four-day racing Festival at Prestbury Park on the outskirts of the Gloucestershire town.

The visitors have been synonymous with the occasion since the 1950s. And, in defiance of their country's economic collapse, they still come to shout their heroes home. On Tuesday the tricolours were waved for Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle; yesterday it was Sizing Europe in the Champion Chase.

Yesterday truly was a grand day to be Irish; today could be better. It is, of course, St Patrick's Day. Yes, the numbers of racegoers are down, but the enthusiasm for a ritual remains. Bunches of shamrock will be proudly worn, plastic pint-glasses of Guinness enthusiastically drunk.

Two of yesterday's equine heroes, First Lieutenant and Carlito Brigante, carried the colours of swashbuckling Irish entrepreneur Michael O'Leary, whose Ryanair empire laid on 22 extra flights from Ireland this week. Like many of his ilk, he has taken a financial battering, but his enthusiasm for his hobby remains.

"It's a religion where I'm from," he said. "A true Irishman will grow up to follow Cheltenham first and the Catholic Church second. Perhaps I'm an idiot pouring money into National Hunt racing, but that's the way it is. I'm Irish, and a winner here cures a lot of ills, whether you own it or back it."

Punter John Feeney, over from Co Cork as part of a coach party of 50, helped sum up the racegoing attitude. "It's a rough time," he said. "Plenty of people are losing their jobs and the bad old days of emigration abroad or to England are back. But this is the highlight of the year for everyone. It's the holiday we've been waiting for; the sun, St Patrick's Day and, with luck, plenty of Irish winners." Some 220,000 people will have attended by the end of the week, with a 65,000 sellout for tomorrow's finale, Gold Cup day. After something of a slump – there has been a recession here too – attendance has rallied slightly this year. Numbers of Irish racegoers are difficult to quantify but estimates of 5,000 this year seem about right. When an Irish-trained winner is led into the hallowed winner's circle, it sounds like far more.

Edward Gillespie, the racecourse's managing director, has been putting on the greatest show on turf for 31 years. "Our gate is up, which is gratifying in these lean times," he said, "but the Irish support has not bounced back quite so fast. It used to be like an Irish trade fair down in the tented village, and that has changed.

"But we think Irish visitor numbers have held steady this year, certainly since 2009, when we reckoned they were down 30 per cent. The Irish are an integral part of this week, though, and we have been targeting ex-pat Irish communities here, particularly with St Patrick's day falling during the Festival. We want them to feel that Cheltenham is the only place to be to celebrate."

Irish racegoers may be resilient but they are just one part of a bigger economic equation, of which the racecourse is only the shop window. In Ireland, horses and racing are part of the national heartbeat and, while that is hardly slowing, it is having to be monitored carefully. The bloodstock industry – has been in something of a freefall since the credit crunch.

The industry's troubles are part of Ireland's overall crippling national economic crisis, and the ripples may be felt for many years to come, on both sides of the Irish Sea. Irish throughbreds are renowned worldwide for their excellence in both jump and Flat racing – and that well has been growing drier. There were 12,800 racehorse foals born in 2008; last year, the latest crop registered was just 7,800.

"A large element of that was eliminating surplus," said Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, "but its effects will be felt none the less, in two years on the Flat and about four years over jumps. We wonder if we'll have enough horses to fill the races."

What happens at the races can reflect what is happening on a broader stage. In the years of prosperity, Ireland's racing and bloodstock industries embraced the economic boom; breeders and owners, instead of sending their best to the worldwide market, were able to keep them to plunder their sport's top prizes from Irish bases. For instance, before Bobbyjo won the Grand National in 1999, there had not been an Irish-trained winner for 25 years; since then, Irish stables have won five more editions of the great Aintree prize.

The downturn has seen a different kind of trend. For all but the mega-rich, a racehorse is very much a luxury item, and those from the construction business in particular who became involved in racing have all but disappeared. The knock-on effect has been felt by the industry professionals. One of Ireland's leading jumps trainers, Noel Meade, reports a huge diminution in his string at Tu Va Stables in Co Meath. "Numbers are down to about 55 horses," he said, "about halved in three years. People just haven't replaced horses who retired or were sold on."

It may, though (without being patronisingly stereotypical), be in the Irish nature to take an optimistic view of adversity. "Do you know," said Punchestown racecourse manager Dick O'Sullivan, whose Co Kildare racecourse will stage Ireland's Cheltenham festival equivalent in May, "no one is too downbeat; we're all taking the same battering.

"It's a funny thing about the Irish; we may be better people poor than stupidly wealthy. During the days of the Celtic Tiger everyone got too engrossed in themselves and money. Now we can get back to being the welcoming, slightly haphazard people we are. Adversity brings out the Irishness in us."

Kavanagh, more pragmatically, concurred. "You can't take too negative a view," he said. "In the worst year of the recession so far, we had a Flat champion in Sea The Stars, and these direst of times may help people to appreciate how strong the product is. The sort of industries that will help us work our way out of recession will be labour-intensive and export-led, and that's right up racing's street."

Back at Cheltenham, the composition of the Green Army in the grandstand and lawns has subtly changed this year. Out has gone the brash, flash new money; in have come hardcore racing fans. "We've noticed that the people we've brought over this year are here because they want to be, to see," said Louise Doyle of Co Carlow-based Tully's Travel, "not because they just think it's the place they should be, to be seen."

On the Festival's first day, there were two Irish-trained victories. But four of the seven winners were bred in Ireland, and five ridden by Irish jockeys, including a trio by Ruby Walsh, highlighted by Hurricane Fly. Ireland's champion trainer Willie Mullins, who saddled the new hurdling champion, said: "Irish punters needed a lift and I'm glad I could give it to them."

And today of all days, Cheltenham will celebrate Ireland, from the moment the gates open, with displays of Irish dancing during the morning and a performance by the folk rock band Hothouse Flowers after the racing. And whatever the fortunes of the raiders in between, the craic will be fierce, as usual.

The fortune of Irish business and financial legend JP McManus, whose global interests are Geneva-based, is in the region of £480m, according to the latest Irish Rich List. That sort of wealth makes him pretty much recession-proof and he still owns something like 400 horses to carry his famous green, white and gold colours.

But this modest, unassuming man is like many of his countrymen in that he enjoys the sport not for its flash trappings but for the horses. "This week is a pilgrimage that the Irish love to make, however hard times are," he said yesterday. "And long may that continue."

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