Presidential Punchestown a pleaser for the punters

President Michael D Higgins flanked by Dick O Sullivan, manager of Punchestown, on day one of the Punchestown National Hunt Festival. Picture: Adrian Melia
HE’S a sprightly lad, is our Michael Daniel.

HE’S a sprightly lad, is our Michael Daniel.

President Higgins came on time for the first day of the Punchestown Irish National Hunt Festival; laudable enough in itself given our generally careless approach to timekeeping.

The announcement of his arrival triggered barely a half-ripple of applause from the record crowd of 18,607 but then we’ve grown understandably weary of national politicians. And, given his long career, he’s assuredly one even if his office is above all that.

Once he bounded inside the main entrance he was quickly shepherded around the parade ring.

Along the way he paused to have a few words with the Baldonnel Singers, the popular Naas group who were performing live on this balmy Tuesday afternoon.

But then, Micheal D is a lover of the arts and you sense that he’d happily enough spend the day listening to the many entertainment attractions put on for the event as he would looking at the horses careering around the racetrack.

He was surrounded by an entourage which looked a little like a much less menacing version of the Testudo formation employed by the Roman army of old; when the soldiers would use their shields to create a protective tortoise-like shell.

Flanked by David Mongey, chairman of Punchestown and general manager Dick O’Sullivan and accompanied by three senior gardai and a nervous looking presidential assistant, he bowled around the parade ring, stopping here and there.

Naas Mayor Willie Callaghan brought up the rear but ensured he was in no danger of being left behind, prompting the thought that Fianna Fail were now following Labour.

The entourage included an army officer – well they might as well be here if we’re not currently at war with anybody.

Also there was local man Paddy Hackett, a Punchestown veteran.

Before we knew it they were inside the main building and standing outside a lift waiting for the digital zero figure to appear above the metal door.

If a thought went through the minds of Messrs. Mongey and O’Sullivan it must have has to do with calculating the odds of a elevator malfunction and the least convenient time.

Mr. Higgins and the Punchestown bosses, the army man and the now less nervous assistant were first aboard and the rest were left behind because there was not enough room on the inaugural flight for everybody.

And up President Higgins went to view some of the racing from the chairman’s box, emerging later within the environs of the parade ring to get a peek at the meeting’s big attraction, Sprinting Sacre. We don’t know if he had a bet on the horse but with a salary of E250,000 he was one of the few in the place who could afford to at odds of 1 to 9.

The festival got off to a great start, due in no small way to the good weather.The five day event attracts the better part of 100,000 people and is good for business in Naas.

The management have worked hard to keep admission prices affordable and the package catering for a group of ten people for just E19 each, is incredible value because it equates to just E9 to get inside the venue. It compares very very well with other top sporting events.

The price of food there is inexpensive too and if you choose to gamble well... that’s up to yourself. It’s been estimated that the value of the festival is E60m.

A deliberate, innovative and successful effort has been made to attract visitors from the UK by linking up with some 20 racecourses across the country, including Cheltenham.

In prestige terms, Punchestown doesn’t quite match the Cheltenham event in March but it is a very decent second and, as importantly, it’s a whole lot less expensive.

And it’s not all about the racing.

There are art competitions, fashion displays, music, a fun fair and (if you like this kind of thing) more weird ladies hats per square yard than anywhere else in Ireland for five April days on the trot – no pun intended

- Paul O’Meara