Look down from the galtee mountains. Spring is coming with new, dark grass to the limestone bones of county Tipperary, the finest horse-rearing country in all of Ireland.
Now head downhill into gray little Fethard (pop. 2,000), too small to be a town, too big to be a village. Then follow the main street until you reach a pub called McCarthy's. You will be made very welcome there by Annette Murphy, whose family has owned the pub for four generations. Hers is the horsiest pub in Ireland. Vincent O'Brien, doyen of Irish trainers, comes here to lift a celebratory glass with his stable lads. Michael (Mouse) Morris, son of Lord Killanin, former president of the International Olympic Committee, drops in often. Morris schools his jumpers nearby, and so does Eddie O'Grady, a trainer like his father, the legendary Willie O'Grady. And the nation's greatest horse farm, Coolmore, is only a mile or so away.
Every night is nostalgia night at McCarthy's. "Did ye see the old railroad station?" a local wants to know. "They ripped up the track nearly 30 years ago, and, God help us, they've turned it into a folk museum. But in the old days, 12 English Grand National winners set out on the train from this little place."
"Everybody's heard of the Grand National," says Murphy of the world's most famous steeplechase event. "But that's a lottery, 40 or more horses in it, like the crowd for mass on Easter Sunday, but not as classy-looking. Cheltenham now, that's the real national obsession, God forgive us." Murphy is talking about the imminent three-day National Hunt Festival, held over three days in March at Cheltenham, in the English Cotswolds. It is the most prestigious jump-race meeting in the world, featuring the finest hurdling and steeplechasing horses. Murphy knows a thing or two about the event because her father and her husband were jump jockeys, and her son is one now.
This morning, the Irish Independent announced solemnly, "Today is Friday B.C.," the Friday before Cheltenham, that is. McCarthy's looks and sounds like the headquarters of an invading army in the last, tense phase before an assault. As it is.
"How'll you be getting over, Jimmy?" yells a voice. Jimmy Ryan, an ardent steeplechase fan, has no clear idea. "There was a fella hauling a load of Tipp cheese to Spain via London, coming back with oranges, and he promised me a ride," he bellows back. "But I just missed him this morning. So it might have to be Slattery's bloody old bus from Tralee again. I got a great thumb, though. I'm 54 years of age. I haven't missed Cheltenham in the last 15 years, and I'm not starting now.
"If you want to find me, I'll be taking me breakfast at the Queen's Hotel every morning," Ryan adds grandly, referring to the hotel that serves as the headquarters of the Irish contingent.
A derisive groan goes up. The company at McCarthy's knows that unless Jimmy Ryan hits a 50-1 winner, his travel arrangements are likely to be considerably less than lavish. For Ryan and thousands of his countrymen, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, is hallowed ground indeed. The Irish invented steeplechasing.
But the luck of the Irish has undergone a downturn in recent years. Tipperary still breeds great jump horses—in the 198 races held at Cheltenham from 1981 through '91, Ireland bred 119 of the winners—but current economic circumstances mean that these days the best young Irish prospects tend to be bought up and shipped to England. For the 1991 meet at Cheltenham there will be only two Fethard-trained jumpers. One of them is the American-owned Cahervilla-how, who is trained by Morris. The other is Blitzkreig, the big gray whom O'Grady is putting through his last prep before he flies the horse across the Irish Sea for a shot at the $200,000 Queen Mother Champion Steeplechase.
O'Grady says proudly "Blitzkreig's awful popular here. He was the first Irish horse to lower Desert Orchid's colors. He beat him in January at Ascot." O'Grady has to explain to a visitor that "Dessie," as the London tabloids call Desert Orchid, is the best English jumper in a generation, as adored by British racing fans as John Henry was in the U.S.
By now, though, Fethard is taking on the look of a ghost town as the trek to Cheltenham gets under way. For some, it's the dread Slattery's bus, though the visitor ends up taking what Ryan clearly considers the wimp's way to Cheltenham—out of Dublin Airport aboard a 757 that is filled with seemingly-serious, respectably-suited men in their 50's heading for business appointments. Except that the Racing Post, not The Times of London, appears to be the group's preferred reading. The flight attendants do a brisk trade in whiskey-and-soda breakfasts.
But serious business as well as serious fun is what these racing fans have in mind. And some can't wait until they get to Cheltenham to put down their bets. A betting shop in Birmingham, the nearest airport city to the track, reports that one punter, as the British call bettors, headed there straight from the plane carrying a bag filled with $12,000 in cash. Which was naughty, because Ireland permits the export of only $800 in currency for holiday trips. The Irish police have an impressive record of intercepting would-be visitors to Cheltenham who have absentmindedly filled their socks and shoes as well as suitcases with cash.
Punters have been heading to Cheltenham since the track was opened, in 1898. The National Hunt Festival started in 1910, and for decades it was just a country meet, a sort of poor relation to racing. But how that has changed! Because steeplechase horses are geldings that can't be put out to stud, they race for many years and attract enormous followings. Furthermore, while other tracks were forced to close during World War II, racing at Cheltenham was suspended only briefly.
Today, the Cheltenham meet is a national institution, held every March, the first of the great social sporting occasions of the year in England, on the scale of Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley and the British Open. In popularity, it may have overtaken Ascot, an opinion voiced by O'Grady, who is accosted on the track the first morning of the meet. "This," he says, "is not like Royal Ascot, where you put on your top hat after the last race and climb into your limo. Here it's the friendly banter by day and wild banter at night. It's the place where the best jump horses in the world meet: Irish, English, American, French. And, sure, it's the Irish taking on the old enemy, but with great camaraderie.
"And this, not the fiat, is the true sport of racing. Because steeplechasing, above all, is about courage."
You take his meaning that first morning at Cheltenham when you see a dozen horses, jammed tight, go over a fence like surf breaking, and you think of those crazy 18th-century rakehells who, filled with port, created steeplechasing by racing the shortest, fastest way, over hedges and ditches, to a winning post that was the church steeple they could just about see in the moonlight. (Today, steeplechases are run over stiff birch fences of 4'6" or higher. Hurdles are softer and roughly a foot lower.)
It is still something of a mystery, though, how this staid, elegant city became the shrine of such a wild, anarchic sport. Cheltenham is notable for its wealthy retirees and its handsome Georgian terraces, a city that comes to life, cynics might say, as Augusta does for the Masters, for a few days of the year.
On the first morning, a naive visitor might find himself brusquely turned away by a uniformed guard from what is known, understatedly, as the Tented Village. Tented as in Kubla Khan's Xanadu. These are the stately, if temporary, pleasure domes erected by sponsoring companies to provide hospitality and refreshment for VIPs. So the visitor goes in search of friendlier faces. Since Ryan is unlikely to be the guest of, say, the Sun Alliance Insurance Group, it seems best to look for him at the other end of the track, at the Foster's (as in Australian lager) Enclosure, where for $10 one can stand and watch the races on a giant TV screen. There is no sign of him there, though, just as he was absent, apparently, from breakfast at the Queen's Hotel. Later, Ryan is discovered in a pub in town, where he joyfully relates how a fellow Irishman had an emerald-tinted piece of good luck in the very first race, the Novice's Hurdle.
"This fella," Ryan says, "Big Noel Furlong they call him, he's a carpet dealer in Dublin, jumps $1 million bail in England six years ago. The customs there want him for evading duty. He can't set foot on English soil or he'll be arrested. Then, in Ireland last January, he has this little tickle, and he scoops up $4 million on a bet. He calls up the customs in England the day before Cheltenham, does a deal and pays them off.
"So he's on a plane and off to the races. In the very first, his wife's got an unknown Irish 5-year-old called Destriero. He backs it at 6-1 and picks up another $4 million!"
For many race fans, the next day of the meet is merely the eve of the Gold Cup, the premier steeplechase event of the festival. But for the Irish punters it is Blitzkreig Wednesday—especially for O'Grady and the horse's owner, John Patrick McManus, one of Cheltenham's legends. Twenty years ago, McManus began coming to Cheltenham from Limerick. He was a pale, intense farm boy with a mind like a mainframe computer. He began his career as a bookie's nightmare in the early '70s. Wearing an old raincoat and carrying a shopping bag full of cash, he hit the betting ring with all the relaxed goodwill of a ninja executioner.
He has earned a fortune since then, though. No longer will you see him at the all-night poker games in the Queen's Hotel. And the racing, naturally. McManus views from a private box. But old habits die hard. He still likes what he calls "a bit of a tickle," even though, his friends say, he's now mostly into commodities, American football and spending his winters in Florida.
As Blitzkreig booms away to take the lead in the Queen Mother Champion Steeplechase, it looks as if this might be a great day for McManus and the Irish. But three fences from home on the two-mile track, the big gray seems to run out of steam. He comes in a sad fifth.
Later, O'Grady says, "I was walking around telling myself that defeat was character-building, when the P.A. starts yelling for me to come to the steward's room. I wander up there thinking, God, this has to be something awful.
"But you know who it is? It's the Queen Mum, and she soothes me for a half hour. She'll be 91 next birthday, and she can even charm Republicans like me."
McManus, though, doesn't have long to wait for a glorious compensation. His horse, Danny Connors, wins the very next race, the Golden Hurdle. Though the form book will say this was an English win, because the horse was trained in Cumbria in the north of England, Danny Connors is Irish-bred, Irish-owned, Irish-ridden and, above all, Irish-trained, by retired champion jump jockey Jonjo O'Neill. "An Irish win on the road!" whoops McManus, who admits to having, yes, a small tickle on the horse at 10-1.
And so to Gold Cup Day. By noon, the whole melting pot of a crowd is inside Prestbury Park. The Irish are there with the usual peppering of priests; and the English are represented by upper-class Hooray Henries in de rigueur brown fedoras, as well as by Union Jack-wearing skinheads who have mistaken this for the Liverpool versus Rome soccer game.
The people crowd around the statues of the great Cheltenham horses of the past: Dawn Run; Golden Miller, the idol of the '30s; and for the Irish the finest steeplechaser of them all, a little bay gelding called Arkle, who won the Gold Cup in three consecutive years, '64-66.
The big question being asked today is "Who can beat the gray horse?" The gray is that aging hero Desert Orchid, winner of the Gold Cup in 1989 and of 27 of his 50 hurdling races. But the gallant legs are now 12 years old, and though Dessie runs with great heart, it's for third place, and he will retire in December. The winner of the Gold Cup is Garrison Savannah, a 16-1 outsider. You can't keep the Irish down, though. As the winner is led into the unsaddling enclosure, a voice yells out, "He's Irish-bred, by John McDowell in Navan, county Meath!"
Several days later, Cheltenham is being subjected to the usual round of postmortems at McCarthy's. Says Murphy, "Mouse Morris came back very blue. But that night we had a music session here, fiddles and guitars and whatever. And Mouse is a great bodhran player. You know the bodhran? It's made from the skin of the goat, you hold it in your hand, and you hit it with a stick. Anyhow, he sat in with the lads, and they had an almighty session. So, what with the jigs and the reels, he forgot all about the racing."
Says Ryan, shamelessly, "I was there the three mornings in the Queen's, and I never saw you."
Ryan's notion of breakfast time is a liberal one. But how did he get on at Cheltenham?
"Sure, I started off in London," Ryan says, "in a pub called the Wellington, with a crowd of my friends, and we crowded into a car to get to the races. We weren't doing so good, so we all put into a pool on the last day. The landlady of the Wellington was called Josie, but we all called her the Witch.
"So what could we do but back Winnie the Witch in the very last race, and she came in at 33-1. We got a whole day's drinking out of that. But we didn't do as well as them three Irish fellas that won so much money they bought a Rolls Bentley each. Katey Burke, the landlady of the Gypsy Hill Tavern, told me that. But if it's fact or fiction, I don't know."
By the next Cheltenham, it'll be fact in Fethard.