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Edward Gillespie column: Istabraq and the luck of the Irish

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: December 22, 2012

Edward Gillespie

Edward Gillespie

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THE Irish invasion can be traced back in the 1950s when Vincent O’Brien carried all before him with a winner-to-runner ratio that will never be equalled.

His supporters soon learnt that English bookmakers were prepared to take them on with odds that were beyond their dreams for such certainties. They came in their droves.

By 1964, when Arkle blew away Mill House in the Gold Cup, Cheltenham had been annexed by the Republic.

The sedate, elegant Regency town was transformed for a week, each March, to become a hotbed of Irish revelry.

Such a party inevitably attracted visitors from around Britain and the formula became potent. For townsfolk, this was a financial bonanza.

By the time I arrived in May 1980 the worst had happened.

The Irish-trained winner of the Gold Cup, Tied Cottage, had been disqualified when traces of banned substances contained in food for cattle had been found in his dope test sample.

One of my first duties was to recover the Gold Cup from the unfortunate owner and re-present it in a low-key ceremony at Warwick to the connections of Master Smudge.

A more inauspicious start to a career dependent on establishing best-possible relationships with the Irish is hard to imagine.

By the end of that remarkable decade of the 1980s, just about everything possible had happened to reinstate the interdependence of the two racing nations.

The Arkle Novices Chase had witnessed wins for The Brockshee, Bobsline and Boreen Prince.

The Stayers (now World) Hurdle had seen back-to-back wins for Galmoy trained by the ebullient John Mulhern.

For Auction and Dawn Run had raised the roof with their victories in the Champion Hurdle and in 1986, the celebrations prompted by Buck House landing the Queen Mother Champion Chase were just dying down when Dawn Run went and created history by getting up in the most dramatic fashion to grab the Gold Cup.

Anyone remotely interested in enjoying the Festival had been mobilised and were knocking on our door for tickets and hospitality.

By 1989 the Tented Village now extended halfway to Southam and Irish companies were buying sponsorship and boxes to establish this as an Irish Trade Fair as much as a race-meeting.

Then, as quick as a flash, the economic bubble burst and Irish winners dried up.

A hint of the Irish staying away would have a domino effect on the appeal of the Festival.

It was not just the few hours at the racecourse that customers from London and the Home Counties enjoyed in the company of the Irish; the best was enjoyed in the hotels, pubs and clubs. Gambling did not stop at 5.30pm. The cards came out after supper and stayed out long into the night.

We needed to sustain the success of Irish-trained horses, especially the chasers.

That Irish-bred horses were appearing under British ownership was not helping the situation.

The Irish were now having to take on their own and, to keep the momentum going, we needed to make sure they went home with winners.

In the summer of 1993, we assembled our fence-building team with truck and trailer and set off to a racing exhibition at The Curragh.

The aim was to encourage Irish trainers and racecourses to build fences in the Cheltenham style rather than the less robust portable models that, we believed, were discouraging their chasers from jumping properly when competing at the Festival.

A bold move, likened to taking coals to Newcastle some commented, but one we felt was essential to restore the Irish roar.

We could not have been made to feel more welcome and were inundated with requests for more detail and to make personal visits to courses and yards.

The chase winners began to dribble back and the Gold Cup drought of a decade was quenched when Fergie Sutherland welcomed Imperial Call back into the winners’ enclosure in 1996.

The celebrations that appeared to take the entire Irish invasion into that small space were shared by Philip Arkrwight, myself and fence builders George Excell and Keith Jones.

Our investment had been rewarded.

That it took another nine years before Kicking King repeated the dose was lost in the euphoria surrounding Istabraq.


SELDOM has a horse arrived at the Festival with such expectations as Istabraq for the Sun Alliance Hurdle in 1997.

The back-story for this son of Sadlers Wells included a disappointing career on the Flat when owned by Sheikh Hamdam, early training over hurdles by John Durkan for JP McManus and transfer to Aidan O’Brien when John fell ill.

He turned that novices race into a procession and the hurdling world was his to boss.

Even an outrageous rugby tackle by the racecourse MD on his trainer as he leapt the rail of the winner’s enclosure before realising who he was failed to detract from the excitement.

For three years Istabraq just had to turn up and his supporters collected.

He was the star of the show and brought a whole new generation to enjoy the week in Gloucestershire.

When foot and mouth struck, so close to the outset of the 2001 Festival, fears that the bandwagon would be derailed sent a shockwave through the sport.

Until the racecourse was caught up in an exclusion zone we had no option but to plan for going ahead, despite the despair there was all around us.

The same situation faced Irish trainers.

The farming community was up in arms at the prospect of their racing friends carrying on as if nothing had changed and daring to suggest they would be taking horses over to Cheltenham if the meeting went ahead.

One extraordinary morning I took a call from Aidan with real fear in his voice as he described how he had needed to push past a protest at the gates of his training centre at Ballydoyle.

The situation was ultimately taken out of both of our hands.

First, the Irish government stepped in to prevent horses travelling to England.

Then, after an agonising few days and a further month when we strived to reschedule the Festival in April, we fell into an exclusion zone.

In the meantime we had fallen out with many of our friends in Ireland for daring to think of running the meeting without them being able to attend.

That needed a charm offensive that allowed the Open the following November to fill the void.

Istabraq returned in 2002 and, when Charlie Swan pulled him up as they passed the stands with a circuit to go, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause, a tribute to one of the true greats that would be repeated for Kauto Star ten years later.

A Festival never goes by without an Irish fairytale on the horizon.

For next March, Peter Casey and Flemenstar will be the successor to James Bowe and Limestone Lad.

The excitement of a small yard, miles from anywhere, having a ‘Cheltenham horse’ is infectious.

That’s what the sport is all about, together with tales of how horses changed hands to settle a bet and a church tower that was rebuilt on the back of funds being trusted to a 66/1 shot.

Long may that continue and the invasion add lustre to the evening’s entertainment in many a town and village within 50 miles of this iconic venue.

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