Racing Uncertainty – Frank McNally on myths, mistaken memories, and the Ascot Gold Cup

An Irishman’s Diary

 The Ascot Gold Cup

The Ascot Gold Cup


I see that a horse called Amhrán na bhFiann, trained by Aidan O’Brien, is among the runners for the Ascot Gold Cup, held, as always, on the Thursday of the June “royal meeting”. He’s not expected to win.

But then, at 66-1, he was also a no-hoper in last year’s Epsom Derby and finished third there.

The predicted odds today are shorter than that, although you might still get 40-1. And however improbable, the idea of The Soldier’s Song triumphing in Royal Ascot’s most prestigious race is subversive enough that I’m tempted to have a plunge.

That and the fact that I am currently – finally – reading Borstal Boy, a book written by a man whose uncle composed the lyrics of the Amhrán na Bhfiann, and which is full of comic subversion of Anglo-Irish relations. Maybe Behan is trying to tell me something.

The Gold Cup has literary form in this regard, thanks mainly to the 1904 winner Throwaway, the 20-1 outsider in a field of four, which James Joyce wove into the plot of Ulysses, via an accidental premonition of its victory.

Then there was the strange case of Elpenor, the 50-1 winner in 1954, an uncannily appropriate backdrop to the 50th anniversary of the original Bloomsday and the first of its annual re-enactments.

If you were listening to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany last weekend, you heard the late Anthony Cronin (replayed from a 1971 programme) explaining that in Greek mythology, Elpenor was a friend of Ulysses until he got drunk on a roof one night and fell to his death.

In Joyce’s Dublin version of the epic, Cronin continued, Paddy Dignam is Elpenor and Leopold Bloom, as Ulysses, attends his funeral. The 1954 Bloomsday commemoration was supposed to retrace the route of that cortege, among other things.

And although nobody died then, as Cronin recalled, two of the protagonists (Patrick Kavanagh and Brian O’Nolan, aka Myles na gCopaleen) got drunk and fell from a height, non-fatally, while climbing rocks at Sandycove.

The coincidence was all the more striking, Cronin suggested in the Sunday Miscellany piece, because: “1954 was one of the rare occasions when Bloomsday, June 16th, actually fell on the Thursday of Ascot Week.”

Since several of the gathering, including himself and Kavanagh, were “habitual punters”, there had been “much discussion of that day’s race”.

Despite this, somehow, they had missed the “trick” Joyce played on them.

Alas for Cronin’s memory, however, there seems to have been more than one mythology at work here. For I find upon consulting the archives that the Gold Cup Thursday of 1954, like this year’s, was a June 17th. Bloomsday, therefore, was a Wednesday that year. So if the lads were discussing “that day’s race”, it could not have been the Gold Cup.

Nor was this they only time Cronin remembered the 1954 commemoration as a Thursday. 

In fact, in a feature for this paper on June 16th, 1977, he differentiated between the concept of a “true Bloomsday” – one that, like the original, fell on a Thursday – and the others. Recalling the Elpenor incident, he repeated that 1954 had been a “true Bloomsday”.

That was even more unfortunate because his article was about the many alleged mistakes Joyce had made when writing about horses. As Cronin summarised on behalf of gambling Joyceans everywhere: “ . . . that large and respectable body of the community which both reads [Ulysses] and knows a bit about horse-racing has never been entirely happy about the part the sport of kings plays in the epic . . .”

The book’s worst crime was said to have been thinking the Gold Cup a mere “handicap”. Cronin lectured: “It is of course a weight-for-age race, without penalties or conditions, in other words a championship.” He even accused Joyce of misusing the term “plunge” (which I deployed correctly earlier in this column, by the way) as a “transitive verb”. Ouch.

Those criticisms were mild, mind you, compared with the critique of Joyce that appeared under Myles na gCopaleen’s byline on Bloomsday 1954, even as O’Nolan was taking part in the commemorative “jant”. That called Joyce “a bad writer”, “illiterate”, and “in no way a real Dubliner”.

As for Cronin, he did at least end his pedantic indictment by acknowledging Joyce’s talents as a tipster. In this spirit, noting that protagonists of Ulysses also include “the Citizen”, Cronin suggested the French-trained “Citoyen” would win the 1977 Gold Cup (held on a truly true Bloomsday).

France duly provided the first three home that year, from a field of six. Alas for Cronin, he should have known that The Citizen also warned about the reliability of the French as allies, viz: “they were never worth a roasted fart to Ireland”.

Sure enough, in a race where only the first two paid out, Citoyen finished third.

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