Cheltenham: Sizing Europe shows Irish are back on the gold trail
The talk of a “greenwash” began when they realised that Sizing Europe, in plundering the biggest prize of the day, had not only made it four winners in the first four races, but had also been followed up the hill by three other Irish horses.
Then, after the next race, Davy Russell returned to the winner's enclosure on Carlito Brigante with yet another tricolour draped around his shoulders.
Unbelievably, a filly from Co Kildare named What A Charm proceeded to land a gamble in the sixth. And that left only the bumper, a race historically dominated by Irish raiders.
In the event, the prize went to Somerset. And it was even possible to discover a bleak portent in the story of the winner, Cheltenian, who had made his debut for a small Irish stable at Punchestown last autumn.
He then went to the sales, where Philip Hobbs produced a patron prepared to fork out £210,000 to bring the youngster to Britain.
There are fewer people in Ireland nowadays willing or able to lavish that kind of money on self-indulgence. But the fact is that a record Festival already seems guaranteed for the Irish.
In 2006, when the Celtic Tiger was at its most voracious, they had 10 winners. This time, at the halfway stage, they already have nine.
On the whole, admittedly, they have not been well fancied. The roar of the winner's enclosure yesterday tended to lack the gluttonous edge that can only be traced to fiscal consequence.
Even so, if only for a few hours, all the problems back home no longer seemed quite so chronic.
They have not gone away, of course, any more than Cleeve Hill had evaporated behind the fog that shrouded one of the Turf's great panoramas all through the day. But here, at least, were half a dozen footholds on the sheer cliffs of recession.
Over the past couple of years, an industry that had gladly ridden the tide of prosperity has been dashed against the rocks by the turbulence in Ireland's economy.
But there are far better reasons than money for the nation's traditional influence on this sport, and its greatest carnival. The pastures
of the Curragh have not suddenly withered; nor have generations of horse lore been forgotten overnight. Times may be hard for Irish trainers and breeders, but some of their resources are timeless. They have the horsemen for this apocalypse.
Sizing Europe himself, after all, owed his success in the Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase to the masterly supervision of two of the youngest in their respective trades in Henry de Bromhead and Andrew Lynch.
With that in mind, it is worth noting a very practical explanation for this sudden bloom in the wastelands. For the cycles of jump racing are more forgiving than those of the Flat. Horses bred for steeplechasing need several years to achieve physical maturity.
That process can patiently span boom and bust, fat years and lean.
Many of their compatriots may be panicking— including some who are supposed to be paying their fees — but Irish racing professionals can fall back on an in
stinctive forbearance. They need luck, mind, just like everyone else.
And the fact is that connections of Sizing Europe took a curiously circuitous route to this summit.
It was only when a white Christmas caused the postponement of the King George VI Chase that they sat down and agreed to start playing to the horse's proven strengths.
He had come here last year and won the novice championship over two miles but Alan Potts, his owner, got it into his head to try and turn him into a Gold Cup horse.
Sizing Europe was duly sent over three miles for his first two starts of the season — including the JNwine.com Champion Chase at the Down Royal Festival where he finished second to Kauto Star — and it was only the prospect of another rough crossing to Kempton that prompted the drop back in distance at Leopardstown.
He did not run a terribly encouraging trial, admittedly, but proved a different horse on the much better going here yesterday.
Always handy under Lynch, he took over at the water jump — where Mad Max's retreat quickly extinguished hopes that throat surgery could prompt a revival —and was never headed thereafter. Several rivals were pressing hard on the approach to two out, including two who had divided the three previous runnings between them.
But Master Minded already looked in big trouble, a couple of lengths down in third, when making a shuddering blunder at that fence; and that left only Big Zeb to stand up for the old guard.
He had caught the eye through the race, but could not sustain his challenge from the last as Sizing Europe stayed on to win by five lengths.
It was another four back to Captain Cee Bee, who saw off Golden Silver for third. Best of the home team was Somersby, who kept on at one pace after losing momentum three out.
De Bromhead, his head swimming, turned to a stranger in the stand and asked him if he had really just seen Sizing Europe win the Champion Chase. The previous day he had won the cross-country race with Sizing Australia, and he has good prospects with Loosen My Load in the opener today.
No matter how many races he wins here in years to come, however, he will never cherish another horse more than this one. When Potts came to his Co Waterford yard, he had saddled just three winners in his rookie season.
Three years ago, he was suddenly training the hot favourite for the Champion Hurdle. With two to jump, Sizing Europe was the only horse still on the bridle, but he weakened so abruptly that he staggered over the line stone last.
Anyone who had suggested that he could still storm home first at consecutive Festivals would have seemed laughably gullible, even by the heedless standards of the gold rush that consumed the nation back then.
By the same token then, perhaps it is not too fanciful to treat him now as a legitimate template for regeneration.