Irish fans on song as pilgrimage commences


Offaly teen sensation is heading back to the Cotswolds with tribute song to Kauto Star

WE MAY be drowning in debt and battling a bailout but we’ll always have Cheltenham.

Organisers of the four-day racing festival, which begins today, expect the numbers travelling from Ireland to be similar to last year – about 15,000 – but others are predicting even higher numbers. Ryanair said strong early bookings topped pre-recession levels. It added 64 flights to East Midlands, Birmingham and Bristol airports this week compared to just 40 extra last year. It said it would carry more than 12,000 Cheltenham-bound passengers this week.

Sports specialists Barry’s Travel filled one coach of punters bound for the Cotswolds last year; this year it is providing two. “We have over 70 travelling,” said Barry’s travel manager Beverly Bryan.

Tom Moran of Cheltenham Tours also believes things are looking up. This is his third year to offer packages and each year has been busier than the previous one. “All tickets for Friday, Gold Cup day, sold out a few weeks ago and previously you could buy them on the door,” he said.

Of his group of 70 this year, 28 are from Ireland. They include Cheltenham first-timers Jackie and Noel Flynn from Kilcormac, Co Offaly. “It was Noel’s 50th birthday at Christmas and it was always his dream to go so I got the tickets,” explained Jackie. “He’s absolutely delighted.”

That’s an understatement, says Mr Flynn. “If you gave me the chance to go to the World Cup or the Olympics I’ll turn them all down for Cheltenham. It’s all I ever wanted. That’s where all the good horses go.”

Fellow Offaly person Mark Boylan is one of the few people personally invited to Cheltenham by its managing director. Mark (14) from Banagher has become something of a celebrity, after he wrote a song about the festival.

He was invited over to perform it last year which was exciting but that was only the start. He then wrote a song for the Breeders’ Cup in Kentucky and his family were invited to Kentucky so he could perform at the races. Now he’s back in Cheltenham to perform his new song eulogising wonder horse Kauto Star.

“And they’re talking in the street, and they’re talking in the bar, but you’ll never see the like of Ruby Walsh and Kauto Star,” he will sing when he stands on Cheltenham’s presentation podium on Friday morning, following an appearance on Channel 4’s Morning Lineprogramme.

“It’s all systems go here,” he said. “When I got the call it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.” He’s one of the few people likely to make money at Prestbury Park as his CDs will be on sale at the racetrack.

Ger Mangan is also hoping to return from Cheltenham with more money in his pocket. He may be a Cheltenham veteran but this will be his first time going as an owner. He is one-third of the Fresh By Nature syndicate – a trio who became friends through the Dublin fruit and vegetable market.

Their horse Citizenship, trained by Jessica Harrington, will be running in Friday’s County Hurdle. And if he wins, the owners get a €100,000 bonus from Boylesports because he won the Boylesports race in Leopardstown in January. “It’s nerve-wracking,” he said.

“I have my fingers crossed, my legs crossed, everything crossed. I can’t wait.” He’s not the only one.