For anyone that might have only a passing interest in the world of National Hunt racing, then last week’s Cheltenham Festival gave you and all the rest of us who love the sport, the perfect insight into the highs and lows of this great sport.
It was a wonderful week for racing and above all it was an amazing week for Irish Racing. A number of years back (in Celtic Tiger times when there was the money in this country to keep our best horses at home) there were 13 Irish trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival. On that occasion the final standings in terms of trained winners read 14 for Great Britain and 13 for Ireland. It was a great achievement and one that many of us felt we might never see again.
But last week the Irish trainers went one better training a magnificent 14 winners to pip the trainers of England, Wales and Scotland to the training honours for the four days of the Cheltenham Festival. It is hard to quantify just how big an achievement that is.
The man spearheading the Irish charge was of course the great Willie Mullins who trained five of the Irish winners, including an opening day treble, which was enough to see him end the week as the Festival’s top trainer. His stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, was once again crowned as the week’s top jockey to complete the sweep for Ireland.
There were many highlights from the week. Without doubt Quevega’s victory in the David Nicholson Mares race on Tuesday for the fifth year in a row was one, as was the ride she received from an inspired Ruby Walsh. Earlier that day Hurricane Fly, for the same connections, winning back the Champion Hurdle title was another.
Wednesday was all about the truly phenomenal Sprinter Sacre. In the past decade and a half or so we have been treated to real golden age in the two mile category with the likes Azertyuiop, Moscow Flyer, One Man, Master Minded, Sizing Europe, Big Zeb and now this fella – who is a real superstar (he must be to beat Sizing Europe by as much as he did).
Another highlight of the week without doubt was the brilliant emergence on the biggest stage of young Kerry jockey, Bryan Cooper (pictured after winning on Our Conor). On Thursday morning he had never ridden a Festival winner. By late on Friday he was in with a chance of being the top jockey at the Festival after riding three winners and a host of seconds and thirds. He narrowly lost out in the end but what a week it was for the young man who led up his father’s Cheltenham Bumper winner, Total Enjoyment, when he was just ten. Now you know what they mean when they say racing is in the blood.
From a personal point of view I was delighted to see Bobs Worth win the Gold Cup for Barry Geraghty and Nicky Henderson as I was to see Coleman Sweeney and Salsify make it back to back wins in the Foxhunters but what about poor Jane Mangan who was fired off the spooked Oscar Delta when she looked to have the race in the bag. How cruel sport can be. Both Coleman and Jane were riding their father’s horses and not 12 miles would separate them at home, yet the emotions after were so far apart. Fair play to Coleman Sweeney for being so gracious in victory by remembering Jane in his time of triumph. Classy people these Point-to-Point folk.
Speaking of Point-to-Point people, that fraternity is very much in a state of shock this week after the horrible fall that John Thomas McNamara (pictured) took on Thursday at Cheltenham. We know that he broke two vertebrae in his back and that he is in a very serious condition but the full extent of his condition and injuries are still unknown.
What we do know is that this man is a real Point-to-Point legend. He has won over 600 Point-to-Points and ridden in over 4,500 races between the flags on top of countless races between the rails, including Cheltenham where he has ridden many winners over the years, mostly, as he was on Thursday, in the colours of JP McManus. Having met John Thomas many times I concur with all that has been said about him. He is one of life’s gentlemen and a wonderful advert for the sport of Point-to-Pointing and horse racing itself.
His fall, and the punctured lung suffered by Davy Russell, bring into sharp focus just how dangerous this sport is. Us that follow it and like to have a bet can often take for granted what these men and women put themselves through and put themselves in the way of to provide us with the sport we love. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with John Thomas and his family this week and hopefully he can make a full and speedy recovery.
LADIES SHOW THE WAY
It was definitely a mixed weekend on the rugby front from an Irish perspective. On Saturday the Ireland men lost to Italy for the first time since the Italians joined the Six Nations to end a dismal campaign for Declan Kidney’s men and then on Sunday the Irish Ladies, inspired by Abbeyside’s Niamh Briggs, claimed Ireland’s first ever Six Nations Grand Slam by defeating Italy 6-3 in a dour battle, in horrendous conditions in Milan.
In the end France’s seven point win over Scotland wasn’t enough to prise them from the bottom of the table and so they thankfully took away the wooden spoon instead of us. It’s hard to believe it ended like this when you think of the way it all began with the first 50 minutes of the championship in Cardiff when Ireland absolutely pulvarised Wales on the home soil. Six weeks later Wales retained their Six Nations title, while we just about avoided finishing bottom of the table. Some turnaround for both teams.
People can say what they like about the form of the Irish and the decisions of the coaches but in any such discussion one must take note of the list of injures that Ireland had to put up with. No country, especially one with the playing numbers that we do, could have sustained the absolute carnage in injury terms that we suffered this year. Not even New Zealand.
That said I definitely don’t think Declan Kidney and his fellow coaches helped themselves with some of the very strange calls that they made this year. For me without doubt the biggest faux pas on their part was the decision to remove Brian O’Driscoll as captain and replace him with Jamie Heaslip. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand that decision.
It’s as simple as this. Brian O’Driscoll is our greatest ever player. He’s also been our most successful ever captain. He’s in the twilight of his career fair enough but in my opinion as long as he’s able to step on the field, and I’d play him if he had to play on one leg, he should be captain. End of and I think that ultimately this will be the call that will signal the end of the road for Kidney. I just can’t see him surviving but I also hope that people don’t let this season overshadow just what he has done for Irish rugby (only the second ever Irish coach to deliver a Grand Slam) and for Munster rugby.
Anyway let’s end on a positive. A massive congratulations to the Irish Ladies Rugby team on their brilliant achievement and of course to Waterford’s own Niamh Briggs who was absolutely brilliant as the deadly kicker and often try scorer during this and many other campaigns. A great sportswoman from a great sporting family. Take a bow Niamh.
One of the great Irish traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day are the All-Ireland club finals, when the best club sides in the land get their day of glory in Croke Park. I watched last Sunday’s two games and what an advert they were for our National games. Two absolute crackers that could very easily both have ended up as draws. Joy in the end for St. Thomas’ of Galway in the hurling and St. Brigids of Roscommon in the football.