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An Irish Quest for English Gold
Clive Gammon
February 24, 1992
An Irish town prepares for its annual journey to the Gold Cup in Cheltenham, England
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February 24, 1992

An Irish Quest For English Gold

An Irish town prepares for its annual journey to the Gold Cup in Cheltenham, England

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For many race fans, the next day of the meet is merely the eve of the Gold Cup, the premier steeplechase event of the festival. But for the Irish punters it is Blitzkreig Wednesday—especially for O'Grady and the horse's owner, John Patrick McManus, one of Cheltenham's legends. Twenty years ago, McManus began coming to Cheltenham from Limerick. He was a pale, intense farm boy with a mind like a mainframe computer. He began his career as a bookie's nightmare in the early '70s. Wearing an old raincoat and carrying a shopping bag full of cash, he hit the betting ring with all the relaxed goodwill of a ninja executioner.

He has earned a fortune since then, though. No longer will you see him at the all-night poker games in the Queen's Hotel. And the racing, naturally. McManus views from a private box. But old habits die hard. He still likes what he calls "a bit of a tickle," even though, his friends say, he's now mostly into commodities, American football and spending his winters in Florida.

As Blitzkreig booms away to take the lead in the Queen Mother Champion Steeplechase, it looks as if this might be a great day for McManus and the Irish. But three fences from home on the two-mile track, the big gray seems to run out of steam. He comes in a sad fifth.

Later, O'Grady says, "I was walking around telling myself that defeat was character-building, when the P.A. starts yelling for me to come to the steward's room. I wander up there thinking, God, this has to be something awful.

"But you know who it is? It's the Queen Mum, and she soothes me for a half hour. She'll be 91 next birthday, and she can even charm Republicans like me."

McManus, though, doesn't have long to wait for a glorious compensation. His horse, Danny Connors, wins the very next race, the Golden Hurdle. Though the form book will say this was an English win, because the horse was trained in Cumbria in the north of England, Danny Connors is Irish-bred, Irish-owned, Irish-ridden and, above all, Irish-trained, by retired champion jump jockey Jonjo O'Neill. "An Irish win on the road!" whoops McManus, who admits to having, yes, a small tickle on the horse at 10-1.

And so to Gold Cup Day. By noon, the whole melting pot of a crowd is inside Prestbury Park. The Irish are there with the usual peppering of priests; and the English are represented by upper-class Hooray Henries in de rigueur brown fedoras, as well as by Union Jack-wearing skinheads who have mistaken this for the Liverpool versus Rome soccer game.

The people crowd around the statues of the great Cheltenham horses of the past: Dawn Run; Golden Miller, the idol of the '30s; and for the Irish the finest steeplechaser of them all, a little bay gelding called Arkle, who won the Gold Cup in three consecutive years, '64-66.

The big question being asked today is "Who can beat the gray horse?" The gray is that aging hero Desert Orchid, winner of the Gold Cup in 1989 and of 27 of his 50 hurdling races. But the gallant legs are now 12 years old, and though Dessie runs with great heart, it's for third place, and he will retire in December. The winner of the Gold Cup is Garrison Savannah, a 16-1 outsider. You can't keep the Irish down, though. As the winner is led into the unsaddling enclosure, a voice yells out, "He's Irish-bred, by John McDowell in Navan, county Meath!"

Several days later, Cheltenham is being subjected to the usual round of postmortems at McCarthy's. Says Murphy, "Mouse Morris came back very blue. But that night we had a music session here, fiddles and guitars and whatever. And Mouse is a great bodhran player. You know the bodhran? It's made from the skin of the goat, you hold it in your hand, and you hit it with a stick. Anyhow, he sat in with the lads, and they had an almighty session. So, what with the jigs and the reels, he forgot all about the racing."

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