An Irishman's Diary


It’s that time of year when, all around Ireland, halls are being filled by Cheltenham preview nights, those extraordinarily popular events that match information-hungry racing fans with panels of experts, who promise to mark cards for the annual festival.

But not content with the splurge of money about to be wagered on that, bookmakers everywhere have also found time to run markets on another impending overseas spectacular: the election of a new pope.

The latter contest is, as one Racing Post tipster put it, a bit like the English Grand National, except with “three times as many runners, and even bigger jumps”. In other words, no sane person should consider betting on it.

Which didn’t stop the RP devoting a full-page feature to the question, before tipping dark horse Gianfranco Ravasi, a Vatican-based cardinal (25/1 with Paddy Power), while also advising a side bet on the Canadian Marc Ouellet.

Ouellet is one of the favourites, insofar as anybody can be. A problem for papal election tipsters, after all, is that there is no hard information. The voters are sworn to secrecy. And besides, they’re supposed to be acting under guidance from the Holy Spirit, who is also notoriously tight-lipped.

Thus, when the RP expert claims that a South American cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, has “form”, this turns out to be merely the rumour that he finished second in the last conclave. And form like that makes backing horses look a sensible alternative.

There is no shortage of useful information about Cheltenham. If anything, we have too much of the stuff. Between now and mid-March, every participating runner will be analysed on the basis of age, weight, parentage, past performance, recent demeanour, preference for right or left-hand tracks, speed, stamina, work ethic, fondness or otherwise for muck, psychiatric issues, and what he had for breakfast this morning.

As for the preview nights, horses are the only industry insiders not called to sit on the juries. Trainers, owners, jockeys, bookies, tipsters and professional punters all take part, and they all know more than you do. Despite which, the range of opinions offered may leave you feeling less sure of anything afterwards than you thought you were before.

Which is one of the drawbacks of education generally, of course. And in this case, it may be a useful lesson. In similar vein, during Cheltenhams past, I often bumped into a well-known Irish politician of whom – in search of a line – I always inquired whether he had any tips.

He had one tip, invariably: that the Cheltenham festival was the last place you should back horses. His reasons were two-fold: first, the runners were all good and second, they were all trying, which might not be the case elsewhere.

That’s why, despite all the high-grade data available on the festival-bound horses, Warren Buffett will probably not be investing in any of them. It may also explain why bookmakers are among the most enthusiastic participants in preview nights – only too happy, apparently, to dispense advice on how we can ruin them.

Still, there is great pleasure to be derived from taking even the occasional tenner off a turf accountant, if only on loan. And for those of us not close to the horse’s mouth, the previews are probably the best chance of hearing good-quality rumours. If nothing else, they usually raise money for charities, ranging this year from the Injured Jockeys Fund to Direct Aid for Africa.

In any case, the season is now open. By the middle of next week, Cheltenham fever will be raging, at least among vulnerable sections of the population (I’m well aware that many readers are immune and determined to remain so).

In the meantime, a mild outbreak can be expected in Ashbourne, Co Meath, tonight, where the preview event will be in aid of Donaghamore GAA club. The temperature will climb a bit on Sunday, when there will be previews in Dublin and Adare.

Then comes Super Monday, with events in Galway, Belfast, Nenagh, Castleblayney, and Ballymore Eustace. At the last-mentioned, to be held in Paddy Murphy’s Pub, all proceeds will go to Temple Street Children’s Hospital.

At time of going to press, by the way, there were no known preview nights about the papal conclave. Nor have I heard any good tips. As usual, the Holy Spirit has not been returning my calls.

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