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“It’s going to be a lonesome Cheltenham this year”

“It’s going to be a lonesome Cheltenham this year.”

#lonesome #Cheltenham #year #limericknewswire

RETIRED Limerick jockey, Gerry O’Neill, still saviors the thrill of riding Chance Coffey to victory in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham on March 15th, 1995.

“I know what the buzz is like, alright. That race was like any other until it was over, and then it was unreal,” says the Meanus racing veteran who hung up his riding boots in 1998.

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This year COVID-19 has silenced the “mad Irish roar,” fans will settle for televisions instead of the turnstiles. Still, the thunderous welcome O’Neill received in the Cheltenham winners enclosure 26 years ago will never be quietened in his dreams.

“The ‘Mad’ Irish…that’s what they call them, you’d see it in them then, the eyes popping out of their heads, and, then, of course, there’s the craic at night time,” he quips.

O’Neill, who has continued to work with horses, and farms at home, says whether one is stationed in the saddle or watching from the stands, it’s hard not to get lost in the drama of the world’s most famous national hunt meeting.

“I remember one year there, winning a wager on another horse, and I threw my binoculars up in the air and forgot about them, and they landed down on my head, I was lucky not to get stitches — that’s the kind of an atmosphere that is there, you lose yourself in it.”

— Pandemic —

“This year, I won’t be going over; I wasn’t there last year either, but I would go most years to get the buzz, it would do you good; you’d have to experience it to really understand it,” O’Neill offers.

“It’s like the buzz before the ball is thrown at an All-Ireland Final. I remember I took a guy over there four or five years ago, and it frightened the s**t out of him, the buzz, it’s so good it’s scary,” he says.

Covid-19 has relegated stalwarts like O’Neill to watch from their front rooms; however, the 54-year old former champion jockey is thankful the festival that put his name in lights has managed to survive the pandemic: “It won’t be the same at all, but saying all that, I’ll still have the television on from midday, watching the build-up and waiting for the first race at ten past one.”

The pandemic has also quietened the six television screens in South’s pub, Quinlan Street.

“It’s going to be a lonesome Cheltenham this year, with no pubs open, no betting offices open, and no one traveling there,” offers South’s owner, Dave Hickey.

Covid restrictions on pub openings, particularly during Cheltenham, are a “huge loss” to the trade.

“It’s our four best days of the year, and Friday for the Gold Cup is usually majestic for us,” Hickey says in dejected tones.

“Usually the whole town stops on Friday for the Gold Cup, all the office’s situated around us would empty, and anyone following racing would be in the pub, and a lot of our customers would have booked their places for lunch, so it was brilliant, but it’s a very bleak week now,” he adds.

Menus farmer Pat Riordan has attended all but three Cheltenham racing festivals since 1979.

The annual pilgrimage to Prestbury Park, he has normally made with pals from Bruff, “has been lucky” for him down the years, “sure, we never lost our shirt when we were there.”

Last year, one of the groups cried off at the last minute.

“The rest of us were bold enough, and we went off, and we were alright, there were sanitizers everywhere, you couldn’t miss them,” says Riordan.

This year, the Co Limerick septuagenarian jokes he is  “suffering from withdrawals” with a ban on crowds.

“None of us are drinkers, mind; we would be unusual that way, so the vice is the horse. This year I’ll sit in front of the tv; we’ll all have to do that.”


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