Look down from the galtee mountains. Spring is coming with new, dark grass to the limestone bones of county Tipperary, the finest horse-rearing country in all of Ireland.
Now head downhill into gray little Fethard (pop. 2,000), too small to be a town, too big to be a village. Then follow the main street until you reach a pub called McCarthy's. You will be made very welcome there by Annette Murphy, whose family has owned the pub for four generations. Hers is the horsiest pub in Ireland. Vincent O'Brien, doyen of Irish trainers, comes here to lift a celebratory glass with his stable lads. Michael (Mouse) Morris, son of Lord Killanin, former president of the International Olympic Committee, drops in often. Morris schools his jumpers nearby, and so does Eddie O'Grady, a trainer like his father, the legendary Willie O'Grady. And the nation's greatest horse farm, Coolmore, is only a mile or so away.
Every night is nostalgia night at McCarthy's. "Did ye see the old railroad station?" a local wants to know. "They ripped up the track nearly 30 years ago, and, God help us, they've turned it into a folk museum. But in the old days, 12 English Grand National winners set out on the train from this little place."
"Everybody's heard of the Grand National," says Murphy of the world's most famous steeplechase event. "But that's a lottery, 40 or more horses in it, like the crowd for mass on Easter Sunday, but not as classy-looking. Cheltenham now, that's the real national obsession, God forgive us." Murphy is talking about the imminent three-day National Hunt Festival, held over three days in March at Cheltenham, in the English Cotswolds. It is the most prestigious jump-race meeting in the world, featuring the finest hurdling and steeplechasing horses. Murphy knows a thing or two about the event because her father and her husband were jump jockeys, and her son is one now.
This morning, the Irish Independent announced solemnly, "Today is Friday B.C.," the Friday before Cheltenham, that is. McCarthy's looks and sounds like the headquarters of an invading army in the last, tense phase before an assault. As it is.
"How'll you be getting over, Jimmy?" yells a voice. Jimmy Ryan, an ardent steeplechase fan, has no clear idea. "There was a fella hauling a load of Tipp cheese to Spain via London, coming back with oranges, and he promised me a ride," he bellows back. "But I just missed him this morning. So it might have to be Slattery's bloody old bus from Tralee again. I got a great thumb, though. I'm 54 years of age. I haven't missed Cheltenham in the last 15 years, and I'm not starting now.
"If you want to find me, I'll be taking me breakfast at the Queen's Hotel every morning," Ryan adds grandly, referring to the hotel that serves as the headquarters of the Irish contingent.
A derisive groan goes up. The company at McCarthy's knows that unless Jimmy Ryan hits a 50-1 winner, his travel arrangements are likely to be considerably less than lavish. For Ryan and thousands of his countrymen, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, is hallowed ground indeed. The Irish invented steeplechasing.
But the luck of the Irish has undergone a downturn in recent years. Tipperary still breeds great jump horses—in the 198 races held at Cheltenham from 1981 through '91, Ireland bred 119 of the winners—but current economic circumstances mean that these days the best young Irish prospects tend to be bought up and shipped to England. For the 1991 meet at Cheltenham there will be only two Fethard-trained jumpers. One of them is the American-owned Cahervilla-how, who is trained by Morris. The other is Blitzkreig, the big gray whom O'Grady is putting through his last prep before he flies the horse across the Irish Sea for a shot at the $200,000 Queen Mother Champion Steeplechase.
O'Grady says proudly "Blitzkreig's awful popular here. He was the first Irish horse to lower Desert Orchid's colors. He beat him in January at Ascot." O'Grady has to explain to a visitor that "Dessie," as the London tabloids call Desert Orchid, is the best English jumper in a generation, as adored by British racing fans as John Henry was in the U.S.