Instantly buoyed by Sizing Europe’s redemption, watching Cheltenham at a financially safe remove you’d have to be a world-class curmudgeon not to appreciate just how tough, and necessarily thick-skinned, the workaday lads, ladies and horses of National Hunt are.
Familiar to viewers on both sides of the water, Ted Walsh is the doyen of thoroughbred broadcasting — and now “the leading sire” as Willie Mullins quipped — casually calling it like he sees it, but never cruel to man nor beast. The same can’t be said for John McCririck, Channel 4’s resident gobshite, whose knack of rubbing racing people up the wrong way, while keeping his well-paid job, is uncanny.
Davy Russell used his post-race interview on St Patrick’s Day to demand “a public apology” from the Celebrity Big Brother loudmouth following his “cowardly” criticism of Limerick jockey Brian O’Connell’s ride aboard hot favourite Dunguib in the festival-opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The Youghal man had just steered the Michael O’Leary-owned Weapons Amnesty to victory in the RSA Chase when he was approached by a microphone-wielding Derek Thompson seeking a reaction.
Russell, still in the saddle, was more interested in standing up for a young, not-long-since-amateur jockey, “only a chap… trying to make his way in the game”, whose credentials had been callously called into question by McCririck on both that day’s ‘Morning Line’ and the previous afternoon.
‘Tommo’, just about keeping his composure and commending Russell on his ride, claimed he was glad “you brought that up” (I’ll bet), while John Francome in the C4 studio interjected that McCririck’s comments had been “over the top”.
Russell has rode a winner at Cheltenham every year since 2006 (two of them three years ago) and is popular with his peers in the weighroom. He’s honest as a stableboy’s day is long and doesn’t suffer fools.
Neither does Ted, who once threatened, on air, to knock McCririck through the window of a commentary box. Though he now insists, a little unconvincingly, that was “a joke”, the Kildare trainer/pundit’s earthy wisdom is much easier on the ear than Big Mac’s boorish odds-shouting. (As Julian Wilson, the former BBC racing frontman who was at Harrow with a younger but just-as-immature McCririck said: “His whole life is an act”.)
Ted told RTÉ Radio: “He wouldn’t be safe on a bicycle, let alone on a horse… he goes on with that auld baloney and bullshit all the time”. Or the horse variety even.
McCririck panders to the lowest common denominator, the beaten docket. His cold-hearted criticisms of O’Connell — basically saying that a more experienced rider such as Ruby Walsh or Tony McCoy would have been much better company for the seven-year-old gelding — were voiced, as per usual, purely with disgruntled punters in mind; his populist whingeing appealing to that constituency simply concerned with the size of the hole in their pockets as opposed to sport’s captivating imponderables.
Genuine jump racing folk appreciate that, whatever the percentages, anyone can come-a-cropper. Look at the awesome ‘AP’ at Aintree over the years. Ruby, number 26 accomplished, is now approaching 30 victories beneath the Cotswolds, but even he was a non-finisher in two successive races on Paddy’s afternoon (with the unfortunate ‘Citizen Vic’ having to be put down after his fall at the second-last when leading Russell & co in the RSA). And because they’re the best in the business they’re rarely if ever blamed. And horses can’t stick up for themselves so they typically take the rap. But winning jockeys are always at pains to insist it’s all about the horse. Fair’s fair.
O’Connell rode two winners at Down Royal the day after his disappointing, if not exactly disastrous third in the Supreme Novices — a comeback which Francome told McCririck the next morning, “made my day”. It wasn’t his fault that Dunguib (trained near Carrick-on-Suir by Richard Fenton for his Kilsheelan connections) was marked down as a 4-5 banker beforehand. Bookies talk up particular horses as racing certainties to get people to lay silly money at poor-value prices and it’s amazing how many fall for it. Even accepting that the annual mid-March showpiece tends to put patriotic blinkers on even the most calculating of Irishmen.
Indeed, Ignatius Fox of Figgerty’s bar in Carrick was quoted in the press before the festival opener as saying: “I know people who put five grand on [Dunguib]. But everybody has backed him and none of us can even consider him getting beat. It’ll be quite a p*** up when he wins.”
The bookies were the ones getting the drinks in. And not for the first or last time, given the number of odds-on fancies at Cheltenham who actually deliver in any given year (just three out of 24 races this time).
Jockeys are human and horses are animals, not machines. They can’t be programmed for perfection. As Russell said succinctly: “He wasn’t the best horse on the day and if you lost your money you should take it on the chin.”
Denying he is the embodiment (and what a body) of man’s inhumanity to man — Fenton said he shows no mercy to anyone — McCririck protested to Pat Kenny that his critics were merely “the boys sticking up for the boys… Ted Walsh knows in his heart that I’m right but he cannot come out and say it and condemn one of his fellow Irish riders. He can’t do it. So for Irish consumption he has got to go along and say that I am wrong… all the jockeys, the professionals know it,” he maintained. “Do you have an inexperienced new professional on a horse that is a difficult ride or do you get a top pro? It’s a no-brainer.”
Which is akin to asking whose opinion would you place more store in: a self-promoter who gives pantomime horses a bad name? Or a seven-time champion jockey like Francome; or Walsh, who rode four winners at Cheltenham himself, and last week was the proud father of two siblings who landed three more there between them, the elder of whom is now the winningmost rider in the festival’s history?
It’s a no-brainer.