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All bets off: cash-strapped Irish punters unlikely to make Cheltenham races

The famous Irish roar at Cheltenham may be a little less loud than usual this year as cash-strapped punters are forced to keep their hands in their pockets, organisers have said.

Travel firms are reporting as much as a 40% drop-off in the number of people leaving recession-battered Ireland for the celebrated four-day racing festival.

Andy Clifton, communications manager at Cheltenham Racecourse, said despite the strong euro against the pound they are braced for a dip in the Irish contingent, which makes up to a quarter of the crowd.

“The indications we are getting is that the Irish numbers will be anything between 5% and 20% down on previous years,” he said.

“But then you dig a bit deeper and you find travel agents that normally bring 100 people over are now bringing 60, so bookings are down 40% with them.”

The Irish punters have always been an integral part of the prestigious National Hunt festival, which sees the best of Britain and Ireland’s thoroughbred horses pitted against each other like no other meeting in the racing calendar.

Organisers normally expect about 15,000 Irish punters every day, almost equally divided between ex-pats living in the UK and people crossing the Irish Sea for the festival.

And while they were expecting to take a hit because of the impact of the UK recession, the deepening financial crisis in Ireland has prompted fears that the usually galloping Irish exodus will this week fade to a canter.

One high-profile punter who will make it, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary, said the no-frills carrier would not be adding any extra flights to Cheltenham.

“Our schedule is already so big now, flying to six surrounding airports, there’s more than enough seats there,” he said.

“But I’d say the amount of traffic going from Ireland to Cheltenham this year will probably be down slightly.”

Despite the long odds on a huge Irish turn-out, thousands of punters will be searching out a big Irish banker of a different kind to those causing countless scandals in recent months.

Legendary Irish racehorse owner and gambler JP McManus, nicknamed the Sundance Kid, owns the favourites in around a quarter of the 26 races throughout the week, and his presence is said to be making one or two bookmakers slightly nervous.

Other big Irish hopes include Sublimity in the Champion Hurdle, Colm Murphy’s Big Zeb which faces a tough task in the Champion Chase and the emerging Irish favourite of the meeting, Cousin Vinny. But the advice of Mr O’Leary, who owns former Gold Cup winner War of Attrition, is clear. Asked for any tips, the airline boss said: “Don’t bet on horses, the bookies always win.”

Sport — Cheltenham, pages 42-46

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