It wasn't a great week for the Irish at Cheltenham. After the heady heights of last year's record-breaking 13-race haul, this year's Festival brought us back to earth with a bump. As one Irish fancy after another bit the dust, it was as if we'd struck a bargain with the Devil in 2011 and he'd come round to collect 12 months later.
Then again it depends on how you define a great week for the Irish. Because, while the majority of the winners came from English stables, they were being ridden by jockeys from this country. Irish jockeys won five out of seven on Tuesday, seven out of seven on Wednesday, five out of six on Thursday, and five out of seven on Friday.
Perhaps the most memorable of those was Noel Fehily's win aboard Rock On Ruby in the Champion Hurdle. The 37-year-old has been a jockey in England since 1998 yet this was only his second win at the Festival and by far the biggest victory of his career.
In many ways, Fehily is typical of the talented jockeys who toil away from the limelight, known to the National Hunt cognoscenti but largely anonymous to the general sporting public. He is hard-working, driving 50,000 miles a year to get to the various racecourses where he plies his trade. He is disciplined, a big man by the standard of jockeys, his normal weight would be close to 12 stone but he rides off a shade over ten. He has come up the hard way, recalling that when he started off at the Lambourn stable of Charlie Mann he "was on the bottom rung of the pecking order. Richard Dunwoody had the pick and Charlie would also put up Mick Fitzgerald, Dean Gallagher and Jamie Magee. Me and Carl Rafter would fight for the leftovers."
Castletownkenneigh, a small parish north from Dunmanway near the site of the Kilmichael ambush, is the kind of place Irish jockeys tend to come from. Ruby Walsh hails from Kill and Jason Maguire from Kilmessan. The highly promising Richie McLernon is from Liscarroll, a rural area of north Cork not unlike Jonjo O'Neill's home place of Castletownroche. The great Tommy Stack hailed from the Kerry village of Moyvane and Frank Berry from Granard. Tony McCoy is from the tiny village of Moneyglass in Antrim. No-one is going to mistake any of these places for the centre of the universe yet they produce guys who are the best in the world at what they do.
So accustomed have we become to seeing Irish jockeys in the winner's enclosure that we take it for granted. Yet they're producing the goods in a sport which makes the most severe demands on its participants. Talk of 'tragedy' and 'sacrifices' are just so much hype in most sports but in horse racing they have a very real application. The jockey is doing a genuinely dangerous job. Somewhere along the line he will have to fill out his pain schedule. It's not a question of if he's going to suffer the broken bones, the concussion and the terrifying falls, but when. They are an occupational hazard.
They don't do vainglorious interviews where they refer to themselves in the third person and bang on about their willingness to push the envelope while going the extra mile.
Instead, horse racing seems to value that most old-fashioned of qualities, modesty. It's there in Ted Walsh's sangfroid when he's commentating on a nail-biting finish involving his son and it was there in the revelation that Conor Murphy, the Cork stable lad who won €1.2m on a five-horse accumulator at the Festival, was back at work the following day.
Murphy, from Ballineen, which happens to be just down the road from Castletownkenneigh, seemed most pleased of all that Nicky Henderson's Finian's Rainbow, a horse he rides every day at work, was part of the bet, describing him as "the apple of my eye." And perhaps that's what makes the Irish National Hunt contingent so appealing, the fact that while money plays a part in what they do, it's not the be all and end all. For these are self-reliant, unpretentious and proud people, motivated above all by love.
A bad Cheltenham? Not at all. While Ireland has men like this flying our flag, it'll always be a good one.
- Eamonn Sweeney