By now, though, Fethard is taking on the look of a ghost town as the trek to Cheltenham gets under way. For some, it's the dread Slattery's bus, though the visitor ends up taking what Ryan clearly considers the wimp's way to Cheltenham—out of Dublin Airport aboard a 757 that is filled with seemingly-serious, respectably-suited men in their 50's heading for business appointments. Except that the Racing Post, not The Times of London, appears to be the group's preferred reading. The flight attendants do a brisk trade in whiskey-and-soda breakfasts.
But serious business as well as serious fun is what these racing fans have in mind. And some can't wait until they get to Cheltenham to put down their bets. A betting shop in Birmingham, the nearest airport city to the track, reports that one punter, as the British call bettors, headed there straight from the plane carrying a bag filled with $12,000 in cash. Which was naughty, because Ireland permits the export of only $800 in currency for holiday trips. The Irish police have an impressive record of intercepting would-be visitors to Cheltenham who have absentmindedly filled their socks and shoes as well as suitcases with cash.
Punters have been heading to Cheltenham since the track was opened, in 1898. The National Hunt Festival started in 1910, and for decades it was just a country meet, a sort of poor relation to racing. But how that has changed! Because steeplechase horses are geldings that can't be put out to stud, they race for many years and attract enormous followings. Furthermore, while other tracks were forced to close during World War II, racing at Cheltenham was suspended only briefly.
Today, the Cheltenham meet is a national institution, held every March, the first of the great social sporting occasions of the year in England, on the scale of Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley and the British Open. In popularity, it may have overtaken Ascot, an opinion voiced by O'Grady, who is accosted on the track the first morning of the meet. "This," he says, "is not like Royal Ascot, where you put on your top hat after the last race and climb into your limo. Here it's the friendly banter by day and wild banter at night. It's the place where the best jump horses in the world meet: Irish, English, American, French. And, sure, it's the Irish taking on the old enemy, but with great camaraderie.
"And this, not the fiat, is the true sport of racing. Because steeplechasing, above all, is about courage."
You take his meaning that first morning at Cheltenham when you see a dozen horses, jammed tight, go over a fence like surf breaking, and you think of those crazy 18th-century rakehells who, filled with port, created steeplechasing by racing the shortest, fastest way, over hedges and ditches, to a winning post that was the church steeple they could just about see in the moonlight. (Today, steeplechases are run over stiff birch fences of 4'6" or higher. Hurdles are softer and roughly a foot lower.)
It is still something of a mystery, though, how this staid, elegant city became the shrine of such a wild, anarchic sport. Cheltenham is notable for its wealthy retirees and its handsome Georgian terraces, a city that comes to life, cynics might say, as Augusta does for the Masters, for a few days of the year.
On the first morning, a naive visitor might find himself brusquely turned away by a uniformed guard from what is known, understatedly, as the Tented Village. Tented as in Kubla Khan's Xanadu. These are the stately, if temporary, pleasure domes erected by sponsoring companies to provide hospitality and refreshment for VIPs. So the visitor goes in search of friendlier faces. Since Ryan is unlikely to be the guest of, say, the Sun Alliance Insurance Group, it seems best to look for him at the other end of the track, at the Foster's (as in Australian lager) Enclosure, where for $10 one can stand and watch the races on a giant TV screen. There is no sign of him there, though, just as he was absent, apparently, from breakfast at the Queen's Hotel. Later, Ryan is discovered in a pub in town, where he joyfully relates how a fellow Irishman had an emerald-tinted piece of good luck in the very first race, the Novice's Hurdle.
"This fella," Ryan says, "Big Noel Furlong they call him, he's a carpet dealer in Dublin, jumps $1 million bail in England six years ago. The customs there want him for evading duty. He can't set foot on English soil or he'll be arrested. Then, in Ireland last January, he has this little tickle, and he scoops up $4 million on a bet. He calls up the customs in England the day before Cheltenham, does a deal and pays them off.
"So he's on a plane and off to the races. In the very first, his wife's got an unknown Irish 5-year-old called Destriero. He backs it at 6-1 and picks up another $4 million!"