The Cheltenham Festival kicks off on Tuesday and to whet the appetite Elaine Desmond recounts some of the top West Cork-influenced Cheltenham moments in recent memory
1 - Imperial Call wins the 1996 Gold Cup
Giddy up takes new meaning as horse racing fans get giddy with it on the run up to mid-March finishing posts. Like a child’s pre-dawn Christmas day, adrenaline heightens toward Cheltenham week. Champion chase. Champion hurdle. The Gold Cup.
Form checked. Ground matters. Jockey-trainer combo. Course history. If technical issues aren’t hitting home, change tack to horse colour, name or parade ring lack of constipation.
But home also counts. In 1996 many West Corkonians had no choice but to choose Imperial Call.
Owned by Lisselan Estate near Clonakilty, it was a must-bet. Trained in Carrigadrohid by Fergie Sutherland, the Cork in Imperial Call was strong.
Ireland’s best hope of a Gold Cup win since Dawn Run’s breath-splitting win in 1986. One Man, clear favourite, in West Cork clearly not.
A ‘peach of a ride’, Johnny Francome described Conor O’Dwyer’s first Gold Cup ride, easing Imperial Call around Prestbury Park. One Man faded as Rough Quest finished strongest behind West Cork’s greatest Cheltenham moment (so far). His quest quelched behind Imperial Call’s relentless gallop.
The winner’s enclosure swarmed with so many extra bodies that O’Dwyer struggled to lift his arms to unsaddle the unfazed winner.
Hands reached out, patting congratulations as mini tricolours bounced like toy yachts.
2 - Noel Fehily's wins on Rock on Ruby, Buveur D'Air & Special Tiara
If West Cork can’t own the winner, then ride the winners. Noel Fehily from Coppeen added three top West Cork Cheltenham moments to the list. He added more than these but Championship races rise above other obstacles.
In 2012 Fehily returned to Cheltenham after missing the previous two festivals through injury. His bad luck ended flying past hot favourite Huricane Fly to win the Champion Hurdle by almost four lengths. Fehily’s champion was Rock on Ruby. Ruby Walsh rode the Hurricane.
Five years later the West Cork jockey assisted with J.P. McManus’s 50th Cheltenham winner and Nicky Henderson’s 6th Champion Hurdle win. Buveur D’Air gulped the Gloucestershire atmosphere as Fehily surged forward just before the last flight.
West Cork racing fans drank more than air.
Condolences were briefly given to My Tent or Yours, second for the third year running. Briefly lasts a blink.
Fehily beamed his way into the winners enclosure for his second Champion Hurdle victory as Coppeen championed its way into another top West Cork Cheltenham moment.
Next day brought another great victory in the Champion Chase. Brighter than any crown was Special Tiara’s win after two years finishing third - almost a case of the My Tent or Yours.
Fehily added to the theatre of Cheltenham with great stories unfolding at each race, every hurdle and fence. Although he hung up his silks in 2019 he continues to win with the Noel Fehily Racing Syndicate.
3 - No stopping Innishannon-trained Newmill
If West Cork can’t own or ride the winner, then train the winner. In 2006 a bold, up-front Newmill sailed along to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
First trained by Thomas O’Leary near Ballinascarthy before transferring to John Joseph Murphy at Highfort Stud near Innishannon, the West Cork credentials were solid.
Newmill was an outsider in a race which included superstars Kauto Star and Moscow Flyer. Murphy was also an underdog up against superstar trainers.
Who doesn’t shout for the under-horse? West Cork support was strong as Andrew McNamara steered forward from the off, avoiding any trouble behind him.
‘Value for money at least’ is the frequent phrase when a betting choice gives a forefront run but wanes at the end.
Nerves jangled waiting for the wane but Newmill did not fade. He relished the fast pace and thrived leading the posse. Further and further he stretched his lead, winning by nine lengths.
In the winner’s enclosure a tricolour hung over the victor like a lowered sail, or maybe like taking the wind from the sails of the horses behind him.
West Cork coasted home.
4 - Whyso Mayo: bred, owned and trained in West Cork
Directly after the climax of the Gold Cup the Foxhunters Chase is like a big concert warm-up act in reverse. Some see it as an anti-climax but maybe it is exactly the sorbet needed to control the adrenaline palette.
The Gold Cup for amateur riders. In 2006 instead of an anti-climax it was another West Cork top Cheltenham moment.
Whyso Mayo, powered ahead of First Down Jets under Damian Murphy’s navigational skills.
Stabled near Rossmore with Ray Hurley, a small stable ready and able for the big stage. He also trained Imperial Call in the latter stages of his racing career.
Owned and bred by West Cork woman Kathleen O’Driscoll, trained in West Cork by a West Cork man, this was a thoroughbred West Cork Cheltenham moment.
5 - Dunmanway's Gavin Sheehan lands the Stayers' with Cole Harden
Cheltenham’s Stayers Hurdle is the paramount stamina test for hurdlers.
A perfect match for Dunmanway-native Gavin Sheehan, his perseverance and courage also tested in 2015.
He passed with winning colours, his first Cheltenham victory. Like many other great jockeys, Sheehan spring-boarded from the pony circuit to the professional ranks.
His first win came at 14 – last year he passed the 500 mark.
Cole Harden’s World Hurdle win in 2015 was another brave front-running performance, leading the field throughout the race. The chasing pack included Zarkander and master of stamina Tiger Roll, pre-Grand National days.
Sheehan credited the win also to Warren Greatrex’s training performance and Cole Harden’s recent wind operation, but West Cork courage and hardiness helped make this a top Cheltenham moment.
Did we leave out any of your favourite West Cork Cheltenham moments? Aidan Coleman steering Paisley Park to victory? The Courtmacsherry-bred On The Fringe landing the St. James's Place? Let us know by emailing [email protected]
What about this year's Festival? Four days, 28 races = exhaustion, but happy exhaustion.
And that’s just TV viewing!
Mid-March every year Cheltenham offers hope, spring finally unfurls properly.
There will be winners and celebrations. There will be losses and hard luck stories. There will be could-have-done better and never better. This natural amphitheatre where all life plays out.
And there will be horses. Above all the horses.
I came upon the horses drenched in bright sunshine, yard after yard of blue-black ironed silk - (Henri Cole)