Northern Ireland

The Irish love affair with the Cheltenham festival

AP McCoy
Image caption Jockey AP (Tony) McCoy on the first day of the 2011 Cheltenham festival

Tuesday sees the start of the annual Cheltenham festival, one of the highlights in the racing calendar, 2011 being particularly special as the festival celebrates its centenary.

But why do thousands of Irish punters make the annual pilgrimage to Gloucestershire for festival?

The fact that the festival at Prestbury Park is held in the third week of March, coinciding with St Patrick's Day, certainly doesn't do it any harm.

More than 220,000 spectators generate £7m in gate receipts, and a total of over £600m is staked on 27 races.

It's estimated a lot of this money has some connection to Ireland, with the competition evolving into an unofficial England vs Ireland event.

Image caption Horses at a fence in the Irish Independent Ankle Challenge Trophy Chase

Owners, jockeys and of course the horses are often flying the flag for Ireland.

In recent years Irish jockeys have had the best of their English counterparts in the famous races, dominating the event from 1996.

In 1997 and 1998 the legendary Tony McCoy became the first Irish jockey to win back-to-back Cheltenham festival top jockey titles.

He did so by claiming three race victories in the 1997 event followed by five victories in the 1998.

Up until the early 2000s the Irish grip on the Cheltenham festival top jockey honours became vice like, with the exception being Richard Johnson's title win in 2002.

But it is not just the present day success of Irish jockeys that has kept the flame burning, historically fans have had a lot to celebrate.

Guinness

Previous Cheltenham winners include legendary chaser, Arkle, who won the Gold Cup three times.

Arkle's success in the 1960s led to him becoming a national institution in Ireland, where he was known as simply "Himself".

Tales abounded of the horse swigging Guinness twice a day and allowing noisy children to sit on him in perfect safety.

Another Irish Cheltenham legend, Istabraq, the triple champion Hurdle star, was a product of the Irish equine dominance.

Image caption Spectators on the fist day of the Cheltenham festival 2011

He was owned by JP McManus, trained by Aidan O'Brien and rode to Cheltenham success by County Tipperary born Charlie Swan.

More recently the success of champion jockeys AP McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty has only increased the Irish appetite for the festival.

In 2010, Walsh broke Pat Taaffe's record for the most career winners ridden at the Festival, and will have several leading contenders for Somerset-based champion trainer Nicholls and Irish trainer Willie Mullins.

Kauto Star won the Gold Cup under Walsh in 2007 and 2009, but failed to win a fifth consecutive King George VI Chase at Kempton in January when ridden for the first time by champion jockey Tony McCoy.

The combination of luck, success and history means the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival is an event with almost religious significance to many Irish people.

Win or lose, same time, same place, next year the Irish love affair will continue.

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