PAT HEALY: In this week’s blog Pat recaps his personal memories of Cheltenham Festival 2023 ….
If you spotted my automobile leaving Listowel this morning you will see four happy fellas out heading for Cork Airport but really there are five of us! What is he on about you’ll be saying, this fella is not long in from the pub with the ramaish he is talking!
I have my nephew Sean, Berkie Browne and Spike Murphy, but we also have another man on board and that’s Eamon Carroll of Jet’s Bar who passed away last May. You see, Eamon’s wish was for his ashes to be scattered on the last fence of the Old Course at Cheltenham and sure we have to look after our friend.
Eamon was a great man for Listowel town known by everyone all over Ireland and beyond, be it racing, dogs, GAA, rugby or his own pub trade. People that would visit Listowel all year round would want to meet two people in our great town, one was the legendary John B Keane and the other was “Ned The Dead” as Eamon was known due to his other business being an undertaker. We miss him dearly in Listowel and he made the pilgrimage to Cheltenham every year since the 80’s.
We are on the 12am iron bird to Heathrow and, after a small delay due to high winds in London, we land at 3pm. Pick up the car and a handy spin to Charlton Kings in Cheltenham town sees us check in with our landlady Christine for 6pm.
Tuesday 14th March
I arrive on track this morning for 8.30am to pick up our media accreditation and get set up in the press room. Situated behind the weighing room there will be about 120 photographers, journalists, TV & social media personalities, bookies reps and track officials.
Sean and I have a walk on the track and come up with our plan. He will shoot the final hurdle and fence and sprint for the winners’ enclosure while I shoot the winning line, jockeys’ celebrations and then fight my way through the crowd, running along the back of the stands to shoot the winners’ enclosure from up top and then the presentations. It’s a tough gig but I love it. The yoke on my phone tells me I do roughly 25,000 steps each day!
Sitting down this evening after the dinner I reflect on the day, and I have to say in all my time I don’t think I ever experienced a day’s racing like it. From Barry Connell and Michael O’Sullivan, the colossus that is Constitution Hill, a Willie [Mullins] double, to a Gordon [Elliott] winner making it five Irish winners on the card, but my God Honeysuckle just crowns the lot. I don’t cry very often at a race meeting, but I cried today.
Leaving the reception that Honeysuckle, groom Colman Comerford and jockey Rachael Blackmore received aside, the emotion that got to me was, like every one of the 60,000 people there, thinking of young Jack de Bromhead. As a father myself, since that unimaginable day last September, I think of his parents Heather and Henry and siblings Mia and Georgia a lot. How they are coming through this horrific nightmare. The way Henry speaks every time he is interviewed just blows me away. I honestly don’t think I could manage the way Henry and Heather are, and the 15 minutes after this special horse Honeysuckle crossed the line for her fourth Cheltenham Festival success was just surreal. People don’t always get what they deserve in this game, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, this was Holy God’s way of injecting some happiness into the De Bromhead family.
Wednesday 15th March
It’s a rainy day today but not a patch on last year’s day long downpour and on the pitch we witness great performances and stories. The Irish bag five winners on the day to bring our total to 10 for the two days.
The scenes for the bumper in the winners’ enclosure are a pure joy. A Dream To Share winning for 86-year-old John Kiely and wife Marian, 18-year-old jockey John Gleeson and owner JP McManus, who is recording his 70th Festival success. JP bought the horse from John’s parents, well-known TV pundit Brian and wife Claire, after his Dublin Racing Festival success and with JP and Brian being two of the most popular people on the track, I’d say their hands were awful sore from being congratulated.
It’s also a great day for the Mariga Family from Gortroe near Youghal with Maskada winning. The win provides 22-year-old jockey Darragh O’Keeffe with his first Festival success and a second winner at the meeting for trainer Henry de Bromhead. Kieran, Cathy, Liam and Cathal Mariga operate under the Coolmara Stables banner and they are all here to enjoy their moment.
Delta Work wins back-to-back Cross Country Chases, this year under Keith Donoghue, giving him his fourth Festival success. We see an awesome performance from Energumene also making it back-to-back success in The Queen Mother Champion Chase for trainer Willie Mullins, jockey Paul Townend and owner Tony Bloom, also owner of Brighton soccer team who make it a memorable day for him by beating Crystal Palace in their Premiership match this evening.
Of course, we have to mention The Real Whacker, winner of The Brown Advisory for former Askeaton-based trainer Paddy Neville. Now based in Middleham in Yorkshire the records will state it’s an English success with Paddy having moved over a couple of years ago. The owner is well-known character Davy Mann who has the Rathkeale House Hotel in the County Limerick town. Both are great fans of The Harvest Festival and it’s great to hear Paddy telling Lydia Hislop on Racing TV that he will target a few for the meeting this September.
Thursday 16th March
Another brilliant day for the Irish with five winners including the two Grade 1 races with Envoi Allen and Sire Du Berlais.
It’s fantastic to witness first Festival wins for so many. Jockeys Liam McKenna (what a ride he gave Good Time Jonny), Ben Harvey and Patrick King all visit the winners’ enclosure for the first time here, with trainers John McConnell and Sam Curling also notching their maiden wins at the Festival.
Owners Aidan Shields and Niall Reilly are based in New York and were here with Benefficient in 2013 and they are back today with Good Time Jonny.
Seddon’s win in the Plate Handicap is a maiden Festival success for The Galaxy Horse Racing Syndicate run by Dublin men Derek McGeehan and Johnny Maher. They started the syndicate back in 2017 and have had great success in Dundalk the past few years but today brings them to a new level and it is well deserved.
Friday 17th March
Today is all about The Gold Cup and for a fifth year in a row Ireland win it, this time with a new Willie Mullins superstar in Galopin Des Champs under Paul Townend for Dublin owners Greg and Audrey Turley.
He smashes the Kempton King George winner Bravemansgame by seven lengths and being a seven-year-old I’m sure the sky is the limit for this exciting chaser. It’s his third run here at the Festival, firstly winning the 2021 Martin Pipe and who can forget his last fence fall last year with the Turners at his mercy. God he is going to be a monster if he keeps his graph rising.
Galopin is one of three Irish winners on the day making it a total of 18 for the Irish over the four days. There was a great spread of winners too with seven Irish jockeys having their first success and four Irish trainers recording their maiden success. So much for Willie and Gordon’s dominance!
Eamon Carroll would have loved it!
Until next week.