“SORRY, there’s no availability at all in the restaurant for that day. You’re number 52 on the waiting list.”
The phone conversation overheard while walking past the Punchestown main office suggested the racecourse must be full to the rafters, so it was a surprise to learn that the attendance was down on Tuesday.
Wednesday’s numbers were up but, given the quality of the card (Allaho, The Nice Guy, Facile Vega) it was surprisingly easy to get around and there was no evidence of any queues in the bars, toilets or betting office.
Before racing parade ring MC Brendan McArdle found himself locked in an air-tight cylinder trying to “grab a grand” with Ladbrokes. The gimmick involves having to grab plastic balls swirling around your head at a million miles an hour. Amazingly the prize is later won by a one-armed man who is a neighbour of Robbie Power.
The mid-afternoon start to racing means there are only a few punters in the Ladbrokes shop to see Princess Zoe win at Ascot. Shop manager Colin McHugh says: “She was well backed but it would have been much worse if the race was on later in the day. Overall trade is good – we’re seeing some new high-staking customers in the shop.”
Tuesday’s results went well for the bookies but they suffered on Wednesday when The Nice Guy, Allaho and Facile Vega all won. Franco Hughes, one of over 60 bookmakers in the main ring, reported: “There’s too many bookies here! Business is okay. There’s plenty of €100 and €200 bets but nothing too big.”
We bump into four lads from Newcastle who have travelled over for a stag. They’ve no complaints with the cost of tickets or prices at the bar but say their accommodation is expensive.
A group of executives from Cheltenham Racecourse are here for the first time and note the much more relaxed atmosphere. “Was it always five days?” asks one of them innocently. Er, we mumble as we gaze at our shoes, they kind of added on the Saturday as a non-Festival day in 2008 and now it has grown into the most popular day. “How interesting,” they observe, and we realise we may have just ruined Cheltenham.
Never mind, it’s Gold Cup time now and it’s not difficult to get a good spot around the parade ring to observe the star-studded field.
Co Cork breeder Nicola Kent, Ireland’s Arqana representative, has travelled to see Allaho in the flesh for the first time. The chaser was bred by her Arqana colleague Thomas Leffray for the price of “a few bags of apples”.
He’s worth a lot more now and pulverises the field with a powerful display of front-runing.
Winning trainer Willie Mullins seems shocked by the performance. “I wasn’t worried about the horse staying the trip but I didn’t think Paul [Townend] was going to be so bold out in front.
“I told Paul beforehand that two of our other runners – Al Boum Photo and Kemboy – wouldn’t mind making the running. Paul just said ‘If they’re still with me after two fences, they can have the lead’. Bryan Cooper [Al Boum Photo] came in and said that was the fastest Gold Cup he has ever ridden in.”
They say Willie Mullins is a Manchester United fan but the Gold Cup result won’t have pleased former Red Devils manager Sir Alex Ferguson who is making his first visit to Punchestown, here to see Clan Des Obeaux finish a distant second to Allaho.
Sir Alex – and everyone else – was unable to see ‘Clan’ win at last year’s meeting which was behind closed doors. There are reports that co-owner Ged Mason sent his private jet to Punchestown to collect the Cup on that occasion. But the only jet on show on Wednesday was Allaho.