Irish hoping for gold rush at the 'Olympics' of racing


London (AFP)

Jessica Harrington sums up her relationship with the Cheltenham Festival as a 'major love affair' and many of her Irish compatriots would concur with the top trainer.

Tens of thousands of Irish turfistes will pour over the Irish Sea to the racecourse in southwest England, to raise a hearty cheer when the flag goes up on the opening The Supreme Novices Hurdle on Tuesday.

Harrington, a vibrant 71-year-old who trains 140 horses equally split between flat and national hunt, will hope to bring them joy in what she calls the 'Olympics' of jump racing with the favourite Supasundae in Thursday's feature Stayers Hurdle.

That would complete a full house of the four major races for her having won the Champion Hurdle with Jezki (2014), the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Moscow Flyer (2003/05) and last year the blue riband of National Hunt racing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Sizing John.

"Cheltenham has been good to me, I have had 11 winners, it is a major love affair," Harrington told AFP.

"It is the Olympics of racing and we (the Irish) have to be at our peak and the horses at their best to challenge them (the English)."

Indeed such is the rivalry between the two nations over the four days of thrills and spills that there is a trophy -- the Prestbury Cup -- awarded to the country who records the most number of wins leading to another sporting analogy.

The Irish are bidding to take the honours for the third straight year this week.

"It is very much like the Ryder Cup (the biennial men's golf clash between the United States and Europe) too," said Harrington, who became a trainer in 1989.

"That gives a lot of bite to it."

Harrington, whose late husband, noted bloodstock agent Johnny, was integral to her success until he died in 2014, says not even hard economic times prevented the Irish from performing their annual pilgrimage to the Festival.

"Even when the recession hit and it hit us all hard, trainers included some (who) didn't go," said Harrington, who first went to the Festival in 1966.

"But many others said the year wouldn't be the same without a week at Cheltenham -- something to boost the morale if not the pocket necessarily.

"The Festival wouldn't be the same without the Irish going over.

"Their presence makes it part of the magic of the occasion."

' An integral part' -

Harrington, who had to withdraw Sizing John from Friday's Gold Cup last week but runs Our Duke who she says is "quite a super sub", had her first Festival winner in 1999, Space Trucker in the Grand Annual Chase.

"I certainly didn't make it home that night!" chuckled Harrington, a former top-class three-day event rider.

"In fact I only reached home at 6 the following day as we stopped off at several places... I felt pretty ill by then!"

Harrington dates the Irish hordes travelling to Cheltenham back to when the legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien won three successive Gold Cups (Cottage Rake 1948-50) and Champion Hurdles (Hatton's Grace 1949-51), and the local businesses are more than content to welcome them.

According to a recent survey, they boost the local economy to the tune of 22 million euros (£19.5 million, $27 million).

No wonder Ian Renton, who runs Cheltenham as Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, is enthusiastic about the Irish invasion.

"Racegoers from Ireland are an absolutely integral part of The Festival," he told AFP.

"Indeed around one in three tickets over the four days are sent to Ireland.

"We enjoy the craic the Irish bring to the event, which is infectious.

"We look forward to celebrating St Patrick's Day with them as we theme the Thursday of The Festival as 'St Patrick's Thursday', whatever day it falls on!"