Gold Cup win brings a tear, almost, to Michael O’Leary’s eye

‘Give me any sport and I’ll give it a try,’ says Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton after her clear round at Cheltenham

The Irish were celebrating again on Friday on the final day of the Cheltenham racing festival, but one man was cheering louder than most.

On Thursday, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary had endured the painful sight of jockey Ruby Walsh on a Willie Mullins-trained horse beating two of his own charges into second and third place in the Ryanair chase.

But on Friday the roles were reversed when the O’Leary-owned Don Cossack, with 23-year-old Kerry jockey Bryan Cooper on board, charged up the Cheltenham hill ahead of Mullins’s Djakadam, beaten into the Gold Cup runner-up spot with Walsh in the saddle for the second year in a row.

So while O’Leary continues to look for a first winner in the race sponsored by the airline he runs, champion trainer Mullins must wait at least another year for his first victory in the Gold Cup.


“I am actually so emotional,” an elated O’Leary said minutes after the race. “We have been doing seconds all week … Gold Cups are incredibly hard to win. I’m thrilled! I’m so happy I could cry.”

The win came 10 years after O’Leary’s only previous Gold Cup win, with War Of Attrition. “Gold Cup winners are impossible to find. I’ve bought a lot of horses in the past 10 years.”

As excited well-wishers gathered around trainer Gordon Elliott in the winners’ enclosure after the race, young members of his staff were letting it sink in that the horse they look after every day had just won jump racing’s biggest prize.

Louise Dunne from Summerhill, Co Meath, a stable lass at Elliott’s Cullentra House Stables, described Don Cossack as a “smashing” horse to care for. “He’s a gent, so he is, a gentle giant.”

She and her colleague Mary Nugent, from Navan, had no plans to celebrate on Friday night - the first priority was to get the horse home safe.

“Tomorrow we’ll give it a good kick though,” said Nugent.

The Irish success in the Gold Cup - the first four horses home were trained in Ireland - crowned another remarkable Cheltenham week for Irish trainers. The 14 Irish winners equalled a record set in 2013 and matched again last year.

But success for Irish trainers does not automatically mean the cash is flowing for Irish punters. Dubliner Tim Pat Dufficy, from Cabinteely, and Pat Mahon from Roscommon town, who travelled together from London for the day, were a little deflated after the Gold Cup.

“Our big bet was on Djakadam. That didn’t go well for us,” said Dufficy. He had recovered some of his losses, though, with a winning bet on Irish jockey Nina Carberry’s mount, On The Fringe, in the next race, the Foxhunter chase.

Mahon had missed out on that one too, but he summed up the prevailing mood: “What a week for the Irish. If we are going to say anything, just looking around and seeing everybody here, isn’t it great to be here? There’s a great atmosphere, there are great people, and everybody is neutral and up for each other in some way or other.”

Just one aspect of Friday’s races threatened to dampen Mahon’s mood. Nina Carberry’s outstanding effort, perfectly timing her move to win the Foxhunter Chase, received less attention from British media than another rider in the race, Britain’s Olympic cycling gold medallist Victoria Pendleton.

A year ago Pendleton took up a challenge by online betting company Betfair to “switch saddles” and ride in the 2016 Foxhunter. Her presence in the race was controversial but she surprised many by clearing every fence and guiding her mount, Pacha Du Polder, to fifth place.

Watching on a big screen as the cameras focused on Pendleton almost as much as they did on Carberry, Mahon was unimpressed. “This is s...t. Nina Carberry, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, is being overshadowed by Victoria Pendleton.”

His friend Dufficy disagreed, however, underlining the extent to which the Pendleton initiative - or gimmick, take your pick - divided the racing community. “I think it’s great,” said Dufficy. “You don’t understand what that woman [PENDLETON]has gone through to get here.”

As Pendleton contemplated her next move - she wants to continue riding but said “give me any sport and I’ll give it a try” - bookmakers claimed to be counting their losses after a week in which many heavily-backed runners delivered the goods. Paddy Power spokesman Féilim Mac An Iomaire said it had been a “nightmarish” week for bookies.

But for the tens of thousands who travelled to Prestbury Park for this week’s races, Cheltenham continues to be a theatre of dreams. Many have already booked their rooms for Cheltenham 2017.