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Dublin: 23 °C Tuesday 4 August, 2020

Johnny Ward: 'From having no interest in racing, there are now days when little else consumes me'

You never forget your first Cheltenham.

The Cheltenham Festival: 'losing one’s Cheltenham virginity is a wondrous thing.'
The Cheltenham Festival: 'losing one’s Cheltenham virginity is a wondrous thing.'
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AFTER 12 MONTHS of ever-changing markets, horses coming from leftfield and others sulking in a field due to injury, the greatest show of them all invites everyone to a four-day party Tuesday.

Cheltenham is a bit like a drug: once you experience that initial high, something you have never felt previously, all you want is more. This recalls my first time. Losing one’s Cheltenham virginity is a wondrous thing; only those who have experienced it can relate.

As I write this on Friday morning, I have stumbled upon eir Sport showing highlights of the 1990 All-Ireland Hurling final in which Galway scored 2-21 but still managed to be beaten. My first sporting memory, perhaps the first time I cried after a game. There were no tears during my first Cheltenham.

It was back in 2003. I was studying in DCU, living near the constituency office of the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Ireland was kicking ass economically and our horses bound for Cheltenham carried confidence. Steeds like Back In Front, Moscow Flyer and Hardy Eustace. Names that prompt a tingle even now.

The journalism course I was struggling through was uninspiring; it allowed time for extracurricular pursuits, such as getting to know the locals in a bookmaker’s in Whitehall.

This shop had considerable qualities: free coffee and biscuits (sometimes), central heating, even toilet facilities – conditions much more favourable than that experienced in the dingy house I shared with other students nearby. In that bookmaker’s in Whitehall, I would go on to meet some of my best friends. They all got married, some had children. They all still like a bet.

These mates of mine lost their Cheltenham virginity before I did. In 2003, I blindly backed Barry Geraghty for some reason and the great man struck with an astonishing five winners in what was then a three-day meet. Life would never be the same again.

Sixteen years on, the approach to backing winners is a little more nuanced – if by no means guaranteed to produce better results. The stakes are higher in every way. From having no interest in horse-racing starting out life in Dublin, there are now days when little else consumes me.

Four sleeps before the 2019 show begins, trainers plead not for sparkling bits of work or something to wow: they simply want nothing to go wrong. So imagine how Joseph O’Brien felt Thursday morning when Sir Erec was showing signs of lameness.

Throughout the preview-night circuit, opposition to Sir Erec in the Triumph Hurdle is of a level comparable to dissenting voices in the cabinet in Pyongyang. Pundits were almost afraid to suggest anything could go wrong. On Thursday, it did.

“Just to keep everyone in the loop, Sir Erec was found to have a stone bruise this morning,” the young trainer tweeted.

Joseph is no Pat Kelly. “Another well handled situation,” tweeted Brendan Duke. “Could get used to this being kept in the loop lark.”

Stone bruises are superficial injuries in effect – unless, of course, they are discovered the morning of the race. Over a week’s time recoverery does the trick.

“I am confident he’ll be fine,” Joseph told this morning.

Other horses did lose the battle to make the Festival this week. The much-vaunted Samcro of 2017/18 was not, seemingly, the Samcro of 2018/19, but Michael O’Leary’s potential superstar will live to fight another race.

Stayers’ Hurdle winner at the meet last year, Penhill, cannot do it again for Willie Mullins. The 2017 Gold Cup hero Sizing John will not repeat the dose for Jessica Harrington. There will always be casualties in war.

Samcro’s trainer, Gordon Elliott, was doing little to help traffic congestion around rural Co Meath midweek when he reportedly hauled the guts of 50 horses to Navan for a blow-out. Keith Donoghoe, who steered Tiger Roll to end his own Cheltenham virginity in the cross-country race last year, was among the work riders.

Donoghoe is apt to run 50 miles a week to keep his weight down so he can get up on horses. On Wednesday evening not far from my old stomping ground in Whitehall, he told an audience comprising mainly members of the Ballymun Kickhams GAA club that Apple’s Jade should win the Champion Hurdle.

A general view of Prestbury Park A general view of Prestbury Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A select few others who went to Navan took his eye, particularly Chris Jones’ Coeur Sublime, a 33/1 shot against Sir Erec who cantered gleefully alongside the high-class Battleoverdoyen, suggesting Cheltenham is coming at the right time.

Keith also liked how Farclas worked (attempting to emulate the same connections’ Carlito Brigante, who won the Coral Cup as a five-year-old in 2011), and Shattered Love, bidding to become for first mare to take the Gold Cup since Dawn Run, was one other horse he singled out on the back of the Navan practise.

Earlier on Wednesday, I was MC at a corporate preview night in Dublin city centre, in which the Racing Post’s David Jennings apologised to Patrick Mullins for not inviting him to his wedding. “Don’t worry,” Patrick replied. “I’ll go to your next one.”

Patrick is very sweet on his dad’s Blue Sari in the Cheltenham Bumper. The only problem is he cannot do the weight. Guess who rides instead? Barry Geraghty.

Weight was always a problem for Andrew McNamara – until he swapped riding for training – and his Instantaneous looks capable of getting in the shake-up at around 8/1 in the claimer (5.45) this evening.

Ilikedwayurthinkin, outrageously eye-catching when last seen, might provide us with some Cheltenham ammunition by winning for the in-form Gavin Cromwell at Naas (4.20) Sunday.

Cromwell (trainer of Champion Hurdle outsider Espoir D’allen) aspires to lose his Cheltenham virginity too. Have you lost yours?

Andy Dunne joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey to discuss Joe Schmidt’s undroppables and how France might attack Ireland’s predictability in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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