Before becoming seriously interested and to some extent involved in racing, your columnist’s earliest recollection of being anywhere physically close to horses was around the time of my birthday many moons ago, watching a few races in Naas from the front seat of the car, now read on…
The main reason for being there was that my sister was friendly with Pauline O’Connor – daughter of Nicky – who for so long was an integral part of the Dreaper team at Greenogue. Around that time, Jim Dreaper had a talented but very injury prone horse called Carvill’s Hill on his books. Despite his propensity to pick up knocks, he was a useful sort, was among the first winning bets put on for me and eventually ended up racing in England.
Anyway, it was probably around that time that I first heard of Arkle as well. Though blissfully unaware of the legendary aura that surrounded the horse. Or the scale of what he had achieved at that time. Those gaps were only properly filled in more recently. Firstly when my interest in racing was ratcheted up around a decade or so ago.
More so, however, when I was lucky enough to get to know and befriend Lynsey Dreaper. Three years have passed she the initial email arrived outlining what was then a dream to, as it were, bring Arkle home. By way of having a statue of the animal affectionately known as ‘Himself’ in situ in Ashbourne. So close where Tom Dreaper engineered an era of brilliance. Not only with Arkle, of course, from there did other storied names like Fortria, Flying Bolt, Prince Regent, Fort Leney and Brown Lad ply their trade.
Naturally, when the opportunity to get behind such a brilliant idea arose, it was jumped at. Though my contribution was of the miniscule variety in comparison to that of those on the committee who worked tirelessly to ensure a dream became reality on Easter Saturday last, it’s still an incredible feeling to be part of history being created. And one to be forever cherished.
Those feelings were at their most fervent as Emma McDermott’s magnificent sculpture of ‘Himself’ and regular jockey Pat Taaffe was unveiled by Jim Dreaper and Tom Taaffe – son of the late Pat. Who or whatever it is that controls the weather obviously also knew the importance of the day and those it centred on as Arkle came home to blazing sunshine!
Such occasions are bound to be tinged with emotion this corner has no problem admitting that welling up occurred on several occasions. Particularly when it appeared those removing the yellow and flag from the unique bronze work were themselves becoming a tad misty as well!
Also, mind you, when the commentary of Arkle’s 1964 Gold Cup triumph was played aloud. A lump took hold in the throat as well hearing the recollections of Jim and Tom and men like Johnny Lumley and Paddy Woods – who quite literally lived the Arkle dream.
In the aftermath of what was a moving, historic day, the point was made that the story of Arkle will be forever told. Something that was ensured by the presence of so many young people. In particular Tom Taaffe’s sons, Pat and Alex, and Sean Yourell, grandson of Nicky O’Connor.
As with anything however, it was great to be able to make some sort of local connection. And what a special connection it was when I learned in the week leading up to the unveiling that Arkle was in fact foaled at Ballymacoll Stud by the late Danny Daly. Mr Daly enjoyed considerable success as an owner courtesy of Cockney Lad, which was trained by Noel Meade.
How fitting it was then, to see Pivot Bridge – owned by Danny’s son, Dan – visit the winner’s enclosure on Easter Sunday. That was only one of a number of local success stories at what was a wonderful – if sadly shortened – Easter Festival at Fairyhouse. Highlighted by Barry Geraghty steering Rebel Fitz to a somewhat fortuitous win in the Powers Gold Cup and Meade’s Road To Riches returning to form and showing some of the class it was always felt he had after a brilliant front running ride by Paul Carberry.
In truth, though, it was Arkle and Barry who did most to make it an unforgettable weekend for the locals. For, on Easter Monday, one of the greatest voids in the Irish racing story was filled when Drumree jockey Geraghty attained his first success in the Irish Grand National thanks to an inspired ride aboard the Jonjo O’Neill trained Shutthefrontdoor.
Other locals to taste success over the Easter period were Tony Martin who sent out The Plan Man to win in Cork on Easter Sunday while Gordon Elliott’s Free Expression was an impressive winner of the Point to Point bumper in Fairyhouse.
Of course, the conclusion of the Fairyhouse Easter meeting means the National Hunt season is nearing an end, the extravaganza in Punchestown isn’t a bad way to go out!