How much do you remember about your First Holy Communion, the entire weekend thereof? In my case, it may as well only have been yesterday. But then, this corner was blessedly kitted out with better capacity for retention than most.
From the lemon jumper and red dickie bow, to dinner in what’s now my favourite eatery, The County Club, playing pool with the proprietor of said establishment, the late Paddy Peters, to a walk in Donadea Forest Park to another game of pool in Brady’s hostelry (no, not that one!) in Timahoe, Co Kildare.
Right now, though, it’s recollections of the after which resonate the strongest. Specifically, going to the races in Naas. At the time, my sister Anna would’ve been close friends with Pauline O’Connor. At the time, all I knew was that Pauline’s dad worked with horses and that Carvil’s Hill was the steed he ‘minded’.
From memory, old ‘Carvil’s’ was a bit of a character, to put it mildly. However, this particular occasion was a going day and when he duly obliged under Ken Morgan, the £1 (note) that he been wagered on my behalf enabled a feast of a bag of chips and a sausage!
Admittedly, it was only during research for what you’re reading that it was remembered that the old boy actually ended his career in the care of the then unstoppable Martin Pipe. The same digging also revealed that the horse had in fact enjoyed his finest hour for the Pond House operation in the Welsh National at Chepstow in 1991.
In a way that was very fitting, because, when your columnist would become much more heavily invested in horse racing years thereafter, the realisation would dawn that Jim Dreaper also has a fine record in what’s usually a Chepstow Christmas cracker – winning it with Notre Pere (and probably many others before the one seeing eye was properly attuned) while at a time when a much more special affinity had been formed with the Greenogue team, I recall another inmate – possibly the mud-loving Goonyella though that may well be erroneous on my part – running with aplomb therein.
Now, apart from Carvil’s Hill, the first Dreaper horses I can properly recall in my own right were Harcon, Merry Gale and, to a lesser extent, Opera Hat. The first named of the three was an especial favourite. Years later, Denman was bequeathed the nickname ‘The Tank’, well, Harcon could’ve easily carried the title too. Alas, he was one who, one suspects, never really got to assume the heights which may have been possible.
Living with somebody who’s as big into racing as is the senior man here, I’ve been regaled with stories of Dreaper greats like Arkle and Flying Bolt and Prince Regent and innumerable others for as long as can be remembered. Little was it known, however, the special and treasured connection that would be formed with the Dreaper family in much more recent times.
In one way, it began when Jim’s daughter Lynsey and I worked together for all too short a period in the now sadly defunct Forum newspaper. Special feelings were harboured in this seat for the Dreapers long before that though. Mention has often been given here previously to the fact that 1991 was a very special year for me from a sporting perspective. It was then this writer became properly hooked on GAA. More pertinent in the context of this offering, mind you, it was also the first time I met Nick O’Connor and Tim Donnelly. At all those matches in Croke Park, which will scarcely come as a surprise.
As stated earlier, I’d heard of Nick a few years beforehand while the first time I can recall mention of Tim was in sad circumstances. The death of dad’s brother Tom in March of 1991 was the first real experience of death that was properly understood here.
One of the things that stands out from that time was hearing about a man in a wheelchair in the mortuary peering into the coffin. It could never have been realised then that Tim would become such a dear friend over such a long number of years and that so much time would be spent in the company of himself and Nick.
Following GAA was only one strand of our relationship however. It has often been recounted here over the years that interviewing Noel Meade for a college assignment was the spark which really ignited my interest in racing. Be that as it may, the largest part of my equine education was imparted by Nick.
In the 18 years I’ve been going to – and a member of – Fairyhouse my routine had, until more recent times, largely went unchanged: go straight for Nick and his grandson Sean – and the other “Dreaper Lads” Charlie Reilly and Joe Finglas – outside the Weigh Room. With Nick and I, the first words were never “Hello” or “How are ya?” Standard greeting was always the same – “Did you hear anything?”
And invariably he had heard something. Because he knew everybody. Or so it seemed. More to the point, everybody knew him. To spend a day in his company at the races was to mingle with racing royalty. Willie and/or Patrick Mullins were the cases that always intrigued me. I’ve never met either, yet. The two hold such reverential status – rightly and deservedly so too – within racing that even I wouldn’t have the confidence to approach them.
Yet Nick could go up to them and come back with ‘information’ as cool as you’d discuss the weather with the barman in your local. Now, however, to my utmost heartache, the whispers from the weigh room have fallen silent. His gentle soul slipped quietly to the gallops on high on November 28th.
Thus, a maelstrom of emotions took hold. Obviously, upset foremost among them. For an era has ended. Not just for me, for so many others also. For Irish racing at large in fact. There was, however, a strange sort of comfort in knowing that what actually turned out to be his last day at the races – Easter Sunday a couple of years back.
When he rang Sean that evening and said he didn’t feel up to going the next day it should have been signpost enough that this was, sadly, a fairly major development. After all, the next day was Irish Grand National Day and the thought of Nick missing that would be akin to most people skipping Christmas.
Personally speaking, however, it took a long time for it to sink in that he would, in fact, never be with us again in our special place. Along with that realisation came the acceptance that it would be now so much more difficult – if unfortunately not impossible – for Tim to get to the races now too. Add to that the death of Christy ‘Kit’ Manning in January of this year and our ‘racing circle’ has been depleted greatly in all too short a time.
It’s been said to me in many facets of life how things have a way of going full circle. In this instance, where the boss here and uncle Tom used to go racing with Tim and Nick and Kit and others, I found myself doing the same when it became the huge part of my life it now is. More than that, where the late Joe McDonnell used to drive the lads in those days, his nephew Eoghan Lynch is now my driver, aide de camp, unofficial extra brother and everything else in between.
Whilst working on this piece, the thought struck me, how wonderful it must have been for Sean, all those years at his grandad’s side, hearing the stories of the glory days of yore. When Tom Dreaper was more invincible than anything Arsenal or Arsene Wenger ever produced.
Naturally, Nick’s family will feel his loss greatest of all. Though if Sean and I had one thing in common in the context of the great man it is this – we’d learn more from him in a day at the races than many would in a lifetime. For that reason, his death has affected me much deeper than perhaps I was even expecting. With the result that, having gone to the first day of the Winter Festival in Fairyhouse as he was being laid to rest, the heart wasn’t there to trot up again on the Sunday.
Mention was made earlier of how my father has been educating me over the years about the great Dreaper horses of old – and ones from many other places too – but as good and informative as all that tends to be, there’s no describing how special and treasured it always was to hear first hand not only what it was like to be around in those days, but to be able to garner the insight of somebody who was centrally involved therein.
To hear the story behind the iconic photo of Arkle seemingly reading the Racing Post over his groom’s shoulder. Or the fables about how the greatest was seemingly partial to a drop of stout. There was always plenty of talk of other steeds too of course, including the old chestnut as to whether Flying Bolt was as good as or maybe even better than the one who simply became known as ‘Himself’.
Remember, the Dreapers once said, when asked who Arkle’s biggest competition was. “In the stable next door to him”. Surely, though, even looking from this remove, and with my head for statistics on overdrive, the fact that he who has two races – among many other things – named in his honour received the highest rating ever awarded (212) settles it. Or, as is more likely, it could be like the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo conundrum, there’s no right or wrong answer.
Spending a day in Nick’s company was like a horse racing history lesson. And, with his scouting ability and a mind that was sharp up to the last day we enjoyed together in the old haunt, there was a lot of learning on the go too!
For all that, however, talk invariably always went back to ‘Himself’. For that reason, the memory I will treasure most of all was being able to share the occasion of the unveiling of the statue to the equine great with him in Ashbourne some years ago. We’ll never see the likes of either again. School them well up there my friend.