Off and running: the use of the whip was a cause of major controversy at the 1980 Cheltenham Festival

You play golf off a GUI-certified handicap of eight. It's taken a lot of hard work to get it down to that mark and you know you can win off it if you play well. There's a nice little tournament coming up on a great course in the West of England. It brings the prospect of some good golf, a few beers at night and a half-decent chance of a nice piece of crystal at the end of it all.

In go the application forms and a week before the tournament a letter arrives from the course. Whilst they are delighted to accept your entry, there is a snag. The secretary at the host course has been watching you and doesn't believe that you really are an eight handicapper. So if you are playing on their course, you are playing off five. Take it or leave it.

It doesn't seem very fair, does it? But this is exactly what has just happened to many of the Irish-trained entries in the 11 handicap races at Cheltenham, the weights for which were published this week. The British handicapper, Phil Smith, doesn't accept official Irish ratings, and allocates weight independently. It's a practice that drives Irish trainers round the bend and if you're the kind of person to enjoy a good festival controversy then the weight issue is this year's most likely source.

Controversy though, has always been part of the fabric at Cheltenham. Sometimes it's local, sometimes international, and almost always soon forgotten. Apart from the bleak events of 1980 that is, the year of whips and cocoa beans, when two nations were torn apart by the love of a common sport.

These days the controlled rivalry between the hosts and their visitors from Ireland is carefully nurtured and lucratively marketed. But "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" and in 1980 the separation was deeper and social divisions were more finely etched. British/Irish politics were still sulphuric and the trickle-down effect seemed to make winning at Cheltenham even more of a national imperative than it is now. Away wins were also a lot less frequent then and chances were not be squandered – at any cost.

On the track that year things initially went well. Tied Cottage, perhaps the unluckiest of all the great Irish chasers, led from start to finish in the Gold Cup. It was deserved compensation for the 12-year-old, who had been upside the winner, Alverton, at the last fence a year earlier but had toppled over. Chrinrullah, trained by Mick O'Toole, hacked up in the Champion Chase and a hat-trick for Ireland in the 'big three' was only foiled by the brilliant Sea Pigeon, who denied Monksfield a third Champion Hurdle.

But there was trouble brewing. Throughout that winter the English press had been on an aggressive 'anti-whip' campaign and by the time Cheltenham rolled around the bandwagon was so overloaded that it was in danger of toppling over. Stern comparisons were made. Jockeys such as Jeff King and Joe Mercer were held up as paragons of stylistic virtue – low in a finish, balance the horse, push from behind the saddle and use the stick very sparingly.

Even Lester Piggott, who had literally beaten both Roberto and The Minstrel over the line in recent Derbys was beyond reproach because as Peter O'Sullevan later put it, "when he struck, he hit the horse in the correct place, in the right rhythm". Few Irish riders featured in the roll of honour.

Two months before the 1980 festival the British Jockey Club capitulated under the pressure and altered the rules. Excessive use of the whip became 'improper riding' and was punishable by a seven-day ban and a then considerable fine of up to £275. Flushed with their success, the campaigners turned their attention across the Irish Sea, where the authorities had no mind to change a thing. The BBC televised the Sweeps Hurdle that January and Tommy Carmody, one of the more artistic and gentle jockeys, gave the winner, Deep Gale, a very serious ride. All hell broke loose on the bandwagon.

At the beginning of March the then Irish champion, Joe Byrne, was fined at Haydock for excessive use. By the time the festival came around there was really only one racing certainty. 'Johnny Foreigner' would be given a lesson on how to ride a horse.

Tension was high and the row didn't take long to start. On the first day Byrne was referred to a disciplinary hearing in London when his mount, Batista, returned marked after the Triumph Hurdle. Tommy Ryan was also fined £50 for excessive use on Mountrivers. Then on day two came Drumlargan.

It was Ryan again who was aboard Drumlargan, a heavily-supported favourite in the Sun Alliance Hurdle and he had the race wrapped up until he made a mess of the last. Ryan immediately pushed the nuclear button and gave Drumlargan some fairly agricultural treatment all the way to the line – and even a little beyond it. His post-race justification didn't help his case against the hysterical accusations of "artless brutality" that made at least one English journalist "physically ill". Ryan commented "with the money our lads had on this one, I'd have been lynched if we'd got beat".

He and Joe Byrne were subsequently banned for three months by the British Jockey Club. The manner in which they rode would be morally and visually unacceptable these days, but the severity of their ban badly damaged racing relations between the islands.

But there was even worse news to come from that controversial meeting. Tied Cottage and Chinrullah were both disqualified on a doping technicality two weeks after the festival. Apparently their feed was minutely contaminated when being transported next to some sacks of cocoa beans. Happily, even the English agreed that this was barmy.

Things eventually calmed down and a year later the Irish authorities changed rules on use of the whip to bring them into line with the Jockey Club. It was the right thing to do but could easily have been achieved without all the noisy diplomacy.

With regard to this year's potential arguments over the handicap weights for Irish horses, it might be best to let that sleeping dog lie too. In the last four seasons English raiders have won just over one per cent of the handicaps at our biggest festival at Punchestown. We've won almost nine per cent of the Cheltenham equivalents in the same period. Shush!