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Celine not required but the dominoes odds take a tumble; Lee Mottershead emerges unscathed from a wet opening day of the festival.

AS I write these words, we're still here. If the worst extremes of the weather forecast prove accurate, Punchestown racecourse, together with its up banks, drop banks and Ruby's Double, could at some point this week be washed away down Naas high street. Best be positive though.

Rumour has it that genial racecourse general manager Dick O'Sullivan has put Celine Dion on standby to sing that song from Titanic but, for the time being, the Canadian warbler is not needed.

When the gates open at noon there's not a drop of rain to be seen, which is good news for the first two racegoers through the turnstiles, a Welsh gentleman called Patrick, formerly of Pontypridd but not since he moved to Ireland, and his nine-year-old son David.

"We're here early but we're just excited to see everything," explains Dad.

"I'm not really a racing man but I've been invited here by Boylesports. I'm one of their best customers. I win a lot but I also lose a lot.

"My luck's been sour since New Year's Day. David's good, though. He picked five winners when we went to Galway. We liked Galway. They were all falling down drunk, especially the women."

With two hours still to go before the first, not a single woman has been seen to fall down drunk. Indeed, one lady is walking around the track eating fire. She could be doing it to keep warm, but as there's a man on stilts doing the same thing there's a fair chance they form part of the pre-race entertainment.

"It's all in the technique," explains Lisette, who walks around emitting flames, a little like a dragon in tights. "It makes you very hot but I love it. The trick is to drink milk. It protects the stomach."

Lisette evidently drinks more than just semi-skimmed because she takes regular sips from a bottle of green liquid. I ask if it's limeade.

"No," she says. "Paraffin."

Lisette's fiery friend on stilts is called William Corvenio. "You have to remember not to breathe in while you're doing it," he points out.

"I've not been here for years. They wanted us to do a two-hour set but it's difficult to eat fire for two hours. It can get messy, so I've brought my unicycle as well."

Compared to Punchestown's banks course, scene of the festival's first race, gobbling fire is a doddle.

TO EMPHASISE the track's dangers, Mount Sion fails to notice an enormous bank called The Big Double and sends his hapless rider flying through the Kildare air, an acrobatic accomplishment that this writer later emulates when a most unfortunate rain-induced slip sends him and his cream slice somersaulting to the ground.

The cream slice is a goner but still very much intact is Big Shu, winner of the banks race for trainer Peter Maher, who reveals plans to partner one of his own horses in Friday's invariably amusing Bishopscourt Cup.

"I'm coming out of retirement to ride in the farmers' race," says the 41-year-old. "I've lost a stone and a half in two weeks. It's all down to a vegetable soup. It's mainly cabbage. A lot of cabbage."

Then, bearing the tragic expression of a man who has consumed terrifying quantities of cabbage, he adds: "I can vouch for the soup. It works."

So, too, does Tony McCoy, who once again makes the impossible possible by lifting Alderwood past Trifolium, one race before Philip Hobbs executes an astonishing training feat when sending out Snap Tie to overcome a 921-day absence in the handicap hurdle.

Grahame Whateley, husband of winning owner Diana, insists he had never lost faith in the horse.

"I always believe in our stock - and in our trainer," he says.

Alan Potts is not quite so talkative after Sizing Europe lands the Champion Chase, but he outlines plans to celebrate by having "a quiet drink and a game of dominoes".

If today's predicted deluge materialises, dominoes could start to look an attractive option.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Apr 25, 2012
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