Punters’ focus split between Cheltenham and the Vatican. What are the odds?

Racing competes with the conclave as four-day betting festival begins


The late Fr Sean Breen is especially missed at Cheltenham this year. Not only had he peerless knowledge after more than 40 years attending the festival but he correctly tipped Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to win the big one in 2005.

Friends of the horse-loving priest took his advice at odds of 13/2 but Fr Breen, who died in 2009 aged 71, said he didn’t back the German “out of reverence”.

Just who he would back today is a matter of some speculation in his old parish of Ballymore Eustace in Co Kildare.

“He was renowned for giving tips at the end of Mass each Sunday,” recalls parish priest Fr John Wilson. “I don’t have that gift.”

Speaking from his home in a parish steeped in the bloodstock trade, Fr Wilson says his predecessor – who used to say Mass for festival-goers at Prestbury Park – is always remembered fondly by locals at this time. “He was the unofficial chaplain for racegoers and very much a chaplain to a lot of people who might not have been so churchy.”

Some of Fr Breen’s flock seem to be making their presence felt in the betting market this week as bookies say there has been unusually strong interest in betting on the next pope.

“We have seen a lot for Scola, who is down to 2/1, as well as Scherer, the Brazillian, who has been a proper bolter down to 5/1 from 33/1,” says Paddy Power spokesman Féilim Mac An Iomaire. “There are some really big sums being wagered. We are well into six figures in overall betting.”

Since the company opened the book, it has employed “outside consultants” to advise on prices, he says; these aren’t clergy but informed observers.

Split loyalties

Fr Wilson, who doesn’t go racing but rides out on hunters, won’t be having a punt this week, although he does share some of Fr Breen’s split loyalties. “I will probably switch stations between Vatican TV and Cheltenham but Cheltenham will probably win out because the other thing could go on for quite some time before white smoke.”

The annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds for many of his parishioners began yesterday, albeit in more modest fashion than previous years.

“In a recession, people won’t advertise it. People now won’t even admit if they are going to a restaurant. The tempo has changed. It’s not politically correct to spend money even if you have it. It’s amazing how things have changed in a few years.”

The Irish bloodstock industry has also been going through some tough times, affecting local spending power.

But thousands of Irish punters are continuing to return to Cheltenham. Traditionally, close to a quarter of the 65,000 daily attendees are Irish, and festival organisers are expecting a similar turnout this year. That’s despite a cold snap that delayed flights and led to ferry cancellations yesterday. Racegoers travelling the Rosslare to Fishguard route were particularly badly affected.

Further delays are in store today as temperatures remain sub-zero. Racetrack frost covers that were put in place at the weekend will be removed this morning on the old course. Organisers are not predicting any disruption to the race schedule.

Animal welfare

In the wake of the horse meat scandal, there will be added focus on animal welfare this year, and today campaign group Animal Aid is staging a protest at Cheltenham. “Tombstones” bearing the names of the five horses killed at the festival last year will be displayed, and a “eulogy” read for each.

Irish hopes largely hang today on Willie Mullins, whose Hurricane Fly seeks to regain his Champion Hurdle crown after defeat last year to Rock on Ruby.

The Festival in Numbers

€800 million: Amount due to be staked on the festival, about €120 million through Irish bookmakers

£1.5 million: Amount of cash drawn from 20 cash-points at the racecourse each year

13: Record number of Irish winners at the festival, set in 2011

5: Number of horses killed at the festival last year

20,000: Bottle of champagne sold last year

220,000: Pints of Guinness sold

65,000: Daily race-day attendance

£3.8 million: Prize fund this year