Majestic view for Charlie and company


THE QUEEN of England took centre stage yesterday in a fetching shade of claret as she arrived for the Gold Cup to be ogled by the masses.

She was of course safely above the hoi polloi, closeted in the epicentre of Cheltenham privilege known as the Queen Mother stand. “I think you have to be

born into those boxes,” said Irish punter Tiernan O’Rourke, as we gazed upon her majesty and assorted minions in the middle tier of the small three-storey structure, with enviable balconies opening onto the parade ring on one side and the finishing post on the other.

“Either that or the kind of serious money that you or I don’t have, my dear,” added a wry old steward. The box above the royals was occupied by a group of skittish, Sloaney types who – tut tut — laughed and swigged champagne during God Save the Queen. The box below . . . wait . . . no, it can’t be. And yet, it is. It is our very own royalty, born to stand in those very boxes, our EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy and his lovely wife, Noeleen, communing gaily with developers Mick Bailey and Seán Mulryan (who by the way, flies into Birmingham by private jet and on to Cheltenham by helicopter, and does the week from his beautifully appointed, old Cheltenham house a few minutes from the course).

It’s at times like this that sport reaches beyond the trophies and the beaten dockets and straight into the heart, don’t you find?

Floating well below on terra firma were Oliver Brady’s little band of Monaghan supporters, up at 3am to get the bus to Dublin airport from Castleblayney and the 6.20 flight to Birmingham, bursting with tension and emotion for Oliver and his big grey horse Ebadiyan. Among them were Seán Brady and Ian Johnston, Oliver’s nephew and nephew-in-law, and what they didn’t know about horses (an awful lot, they freely admitted), they made up for in storming heaven with their prayers.

Oliver, boasting a Monaghan GAA jersey under his jacket, was promising to divest himself of three layers of clothing – right down to his Ballybay shorts – if the gray skated in, and talked relentlessly to anyone with a pen or microphone if it meant raising the profile of the cancer and Kenyan orphanage charities to which he had harnessed Ebadiyan’s Cheltenham epic.

His brother Benny – who counselled him to buy the grey – died of cancer two years ago. Oliver’s own bouts with cancer are well documented. “I’m feeling great,” he said 30 minutes before the race. “I’ve a good doctor up above. All my faith is in him.”

Brady once said he would die happy if he won at Cheltenham and there was some quiet discussion between Seán and Ian about whether God responds to prayers for a race winner. “I’d say this is about more than a horse,” said Ian. And so, as they lined up for the off, this little Monaghan huddle born a long way from the Queen Mother stand, stood in the soft ground of a foreign parade ring and prayed for something more than a horse race.

One second Ebadiyan was skating on, looking like a winner and no one dared to breathe. The next, he jinked to the left and went through the rail. For a few moments, it felt like a death. Oliver’s shoulders fell but he didn’t crumple. His business partner, Rita Shah, took his arm, squeezed hard and kept smiling.

People crept up and hugged him with hardly a word and the man who dreamed about winning Cheltenham murmured that he wanted to be there for the jockey, John Cullen, when the grey was led in. “Not to worry, John,” he said, as the jockey rode past with a regretful salute. “Not a bother . . . There’ll be another day.”

“I couldn’t have been any happier coming up to that stage,” said the jockey, as everyone digested what might have been and consoled his upset-looking wife, Ann Marie.

“There’ll be more days – Punchestown, Fairyhouse,” said Oliver, after reciting a poem. “We’ll have the hype next year. As long as I’m back, that’s the main thing . . . Thank God I can stand here with the horse not winning and I’m still Oliver Brady and hoping the charity will go on making money. ”

And anyway, he added, the horse was always “mapped out” for the Queen Alexandra at Ascot in June. “That’s what I bought him for – that’s his main aim.”

As the nicest bunch of losers in racing history worked to make everyone around them feel better, life went on around us as

Michael O’Leary hit lucky at last with Weapon’s Amnesty in the third (another O’Leary steed with a war-like name, think of Siegemaster and War of Attrition), Kauto Star proved someone’s theorem that horses with two names are more likely to win the Gold Cup and Ruby

Walsh marched on to world domination.

In the Guinness village, Hi Ho Silver Lining was rocking the tents and the punters shredding their dockets as betting estimates emerged from William Hill, suggesting that Irish bets accounted for €100 million of this week’s Cheltenham betting. Irish punters, says the bookie, won €10 million – and they still say it was a good week for the punter.