Time to respect Celtic swing

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"I'd love to think the Irish could have six winners, a couple a day," Eddie O'Grady, one of the country's best trainers says. "It's optimistic, of course, but that's the nature of us."

It is a sign of how far Irish jump racing has come since the turn of the decade that such a prediction could be called optimistic. Two years ago, it would have seemed lunatic. Almost every horse of promise had long since been washed across the sea to Britain by the tidal wave of boom- time money. Trainers of the quality of O'Grady, Paddy Mullins and Arthur Moore had to make do with those which David Nicholson or Jenny Pitman did not want.

The 1993 Festival was the turning point. At the start of the week, the possibility of six Irish-trained winners was assessed at 100-1 by the bookmakers. But six they got, equalling the total for the previous four Festivals combined, with another three 12 months ago. Now the horses which were four when the recession stopped the flow of talent abroad are turning nine and 10. The best Irish team since the days of Dawn Run will be strong in both hurdles and chases.

Little surprise, then, that the chances of an Irish whitewash are 20- 1 (the standard price three or four years ago was about 9-4). Conditions have not been easy this season, though, and many trainers are hopeful rather than confident. "Without fail in my time it's been the most difficult year to prepare horses for Cheltenham," O'Grady says. "We've only raced one Saturday in February and when you have to work your horses on heavy ground it's very hard to find the right balance. You might do too much and leave your race behind, or too little and not have him fit enough. Unfortunately, we won't know if we've got it right until we go to Cheltenham."

None the less, the Irish team may have been underestimated by the bookmakers. It includes horses with a serious chance in almost every race, with Arthur Moore's pair of Klairon Davis (Arkle Trophy) and All The Aces (Mildmay of Flete) mentioned by several trainers as ones to watch. What with O'Grady's Ventana Canyon and Dermot Weld's Blazing Spectacle in today's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, not to mention Danoli (Champion), Merry Gale (Gold Cup), Steel Dawn (Gold Card Hurdle) and a host of possibilities in the Bumper, the Irish could have an exceptional Festival. The odds for seven winners (16-1 generally), eight (40-1, Hills) and, very optimistically, nine (100- 1) should be taken immediately.