Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Article excerpt

Bookmaker Paddy Power once famously declared, 'Cheltenham is the best craic you can have and if you cannot look forward to it you need to have your doctor check you are still alive.' This year it seemed that the whole place was in danger of being enveloped in Irish tricolours. Irish-trained horses won 19 races compared with the mere nine taken by horses trained in England.

Willie Mullins, despite drawing a blank on the first two days and seeing the previously unbeaten Douvan vanquished thanks to injury, still trained six but was beaten to the Festival championship by Gordon Elliott with another six victories and more second places. With Sizing John's Gold Cup victory, plus two more, Jessica Harrington became the most successful female Festival trainer ever. Owners Ann and Alan Potts had taken Sizing John and other horses from Henry de Bromhead in 2016, but at least he had the consolation of winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Special Tiara. Ruby Walsh, who gives other riders master classes in winning from the back, winning from the front and collecting victories on the nearly unrideable, was champion Festival jockey yet again. Incidentally, the Irish, despite moaning in advance that English handicapper Philip Smith had stacked the odds against them, also took nearly all the handicap races.

My hero of the week was Ireland's Jamie Codd: amateur by status, total professional in his riding. He won the tricky cross-country race on Cause of Causes and took the Champion Bumper on Fayonagh despite being almost left at the start. It was Jamie Codd, too, who had insisted at Festival preview evenings that Labaik, the quirky customer who won the Supreme at 25-1 after for once consenting to start, was the most impressive galloper in the Elliott yard.

The Irish challenge at Cheltenham owes much to the deeply competitive Irish point-to-point scene, where amateurs such as Jamie Codd and Derek O'Connor, and before them the late J.T. McNamara, play a vital role. Ted Walsh -- rider, trainer, commentator and father of Ruby -- explained to me why those 'Irish amateurs' are so much in demand for Festival rides. They are not landowners, bankers and army men with a few bob in the bank having a fling. 'In Ireland, amateur jockeys have been farmers' sons who rode horses, broke horses and rode in point-to-points. They ride as

amateurs because of their weight. If they were ten stone they would be [professional] jockeys.

'If Derek O'Connor was ten stone, he'd be Ruby or Barry Geraghty. …

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