It felt like the coarseness raging in the Brexit debates at Westminster had drifted up the M4 to Cheltenham. It made "St Patrick's Thursday" at the Cheltenham Festival feel a little mean-spirited at times.
“You’re going to get stuffed! It was a green wash last year but it will be the revenge of the blue, white and red this year,” one heavily-tweeded English punter growled at The Irish Times.
In the end, it wasn’t a stuffing, though the English did close the lead on the Irish-trained horses to one. The Emerald Isle took a 11-10 lead into the fourth and final day of jump racing’s top festival of the calendar. Limerick racehorse owner JP McManus’s smile was as wide as the gap between Remainers and Leavers at Westminster after his horses won the first two races and the last.
“Nothing about Brexit this time,” said McManus when asked about his thoughts on jockey Barry Geraghty’s double win in the first two races of the day. Michael O’Leary failed to “pull a Mulryan” by winning his own-sponsored race as the property developer Sean Mulryan had done the previous day.
“I did it last year,” O’Leary said. “It took me 15 years to do it last year. It will take me another 15 years to do it again.”
He watched English trainer Paul Nicholls accept the Ryanair Chase trophy from O'Leary's wife Anita for Frodon after jockey Bryony Frost became the first female jockey to win a Grade One chase at Cheltenham in an emotional victory. The Ryanair boss watched the ceremony from the side, but said he was also watching the Brexit votes in London.
“I wish they’d just get on with it and do something,” he said, hours before the House of Commons voted to ask the EU to delay Brexit.
Most punters at Cheltenham who were willing to speak about Brexit were worried about what the UK’s departure from the EU would mean for Irish and British racing but few think it will halt the Irish-English rivalry or prevent Irish horses travelling to Prestbury Park.
“They’ll be here, don’t worry about that. They’ll fly them over if they have to,” Nicholls told The Irish Times this week as Cheltenham’s third most successful trainer rushed around between races.
O’Leary dismissed any suggestion that Ryanair might have to start carrying horses to get them here. “Ah no, they’ll get it sorted,” he said.
Day three at Cheltenham brought more celebrity spotting. There was Rod Stewart and wife Penny Lancaster, and film actor Ray Winstone in the stands, all enjoying a punt. Charlie McCreevy, the former minister for finance and EU commissioner, was here too. He had all the Irish runners and riders crossed off on his race card, and won on McManus's first winner, Defi Du Seuil.
“Nothing to retire on,” he said. The former Fianna Fáil minister, a Cheltenham regular since the 1970s, expressed his disbelief at the British political circus, finding it “inexplicable” that the “mother of all parliaments” had messed it up so badly.
“If they keep extending to have the same thing, the same result, what do they think is going to happen? It is just extraordinary,” he said, of the UK parliament’s vote to extend the article 50 process and delay Brexit.
Others, too, could not believe what they were seeing at Westminster.
“If it meant that we get a decision, I’m quite happy to have an extension but I am not sure about leaving without a deal,” said Kate Gegg, a Gloucestershire local on her way into the racecourse for the day. Gegg, who received her Irish passport last month thanks to an Irish mother, voted Remain in 2016 but is “appalled by our politicians” for not following what the majority of the public had voted for.
“They wanted Brexit so let’s get on with it,” said Gegg, who is in her 60s.
Adrian Pratt, a Jockey Club member who served in the British military in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, said he was a reluctant Remain voter but was now “an extreme Brexiteer” because of inept British politicians and negotiators.
“We should have a government of national unity like World War Two. It is that bad,” said the 66-year-old from East Sussex as he watched horses pass in the parade ring. “I would rather no deal and get on with it. The country is so divided.” A dysfunctional parliament was one reason why he bet on Captain Chaos in the final race, he said. She did not win.