It may come as a shock to some of you – indeed it still does to myself – that there was a time when yours truly absolutely detested horse racing. Mostly because, when it was on television, it generally meant the kids programmes were shelved for the day. However, somewhat ironically, it was while in Temple Street Children’s Hospital having had my tonsils yanked out that the first horse race I can ever properly recall took place. Even though I hadn’t turned five at the time.
That being the occasion upon which the majestic Paddy Mullins-trained mare Dawn Run somehow annexed the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Defeating luminaries of the day such as Run And Skip, Wayward Lad and Forgive And Forget. Thus becoming the first horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. A record which, as far as can be recalled, still stands.
Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s unforgettable utterance that “The mare is beginning to get up” surely merits inclusion in the pantheon of great commentaries. Along with “They think it’s all over, it is now” or our own Jimmy Magee’s “Different class, different class” as Diego Maradonna cut through the English defence like this wordsmith would a good curry!
Thereafter, interest in affairs of the turf were sporadic at best in this seat. I remember Maid Of Money winning the Irish Grand National under Anthony Powell, God rest him, and also being in England visiting my sister the day Adrian Maguire won the Gold Cup aboard Cool Ground. That one’s silks were remarkably similar to the now familiar ones of Mrs Pat Sloane.
Mention of Kilmessan’s Maguire is seminal in this instance. Throughout his career as a jockey, he was absolutely plagued with injury. Which in no small way scuppered his chances of capturing the British National Hunt Jockey’s Championship during the 1993/’94 season. For which he was engaged in an epic battle with Richard Dunwoody.
Those of a certain vintage might remember the phenomena that were AERTEL on RTE and its equivalent on the BBC, Ceefax. The Maguire/Dunwoody duel – at the end of which the Meath man was three behind despite recording 194 successes – captured the public attention to such a degree that both services had pages especially devoted to both riders’ tallies and mounts on a given day.
To my own utter disappointment, until very recently, it wasn’t known whether it was during that particular season or the one which followed it, but, what is still regarded as the greatest race the one seeing eye has ever taken in – the Queen Mother Champion Chase in which Maguire (shorn of red and white cap) somehow navigated the David Nicholson-trained Viking Flagship home ahead of Travado and Deep Sensation.
Evidently, that particular contest lit a flame which has blessedly burned brightly within me ever since, to put it extremely mildly. Seeing Adrian win the Gold Cup had already started a flicker. Firstly because he was a Meath man (little did I know his brother and cousin would end up building the ‘Flat’ in which what you’re reading was produced). Also, however, as Cool Ground’s colours were absolutely adored!
Every season thereafter for as long as I was in school, whatever wheelchair happened to be in use at the time seemed to ‘unfortunately’ develop some sort of mechanical issue just around the second or third week of March. Terrible, coincidental timing, really! Until, eventually, one year, at lunchtime on the Tuesday, the Vice Principal – whom I got on quite well with – said to me “We know, your mother rang in, go home and enjoy it”.
From that particular era, the recollection of which there is most clarity is of Danoli winning what was then the Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle (Now the Ballymore) and Shane Broderick coming to grief aboard Doran’s Pride.
Charlie Swan was aboard Tom Foley’s superstar that famous day when the world first heard of Myshall, Co Carlow and for most of the gelding whom Richie Kavanagh wrote a song about’s big days, however, it was the Tipperary man’s association with another storied equine machine which hooked me on racing to a point of no return.
The one and only Istabraq, that is. Now, to a younger generation of racing enthusiasts, the concept of Aidan O’Brien being a National Hunt trainer must seem alien. Save his few months masquerading as one before Joseph got a licence in his own name. Far more likely are they to think of steeds such as Camelot, Yeats, Australia and a list of other Flat luminaries as long as a piece of string.
However, his brief second sojourn in the jump ranks was very much a case of things going full circle. One often wonders what percentage of the newer breed of racing fan would realise that Aidan’s wife Annmarie (nee Crowley) was Champion NH handler in her own right while he himself was an accomplished amateur jockey.
Factor in, then, that Annmarie’s dad – the recently deceased Joe Crowley – also enjoyed considerable success in the same sphere and the blood lines were very much in place for what we’ve seen unfold before us as the O’Brien children make their own niche in the sport both in the saddle and on the gallops.
Back when Aidan was starting out and before he had the backing of the Coolmore empire, even then he was a revolutionary. Not only that was what would have been considered very young to be setting out training – his offspring have certainly followed suit in that regard. Consider that he only recently turned 50. Also, however, due to the alacrity at amassing amazing amounts of winners in quickfire time in both codes (and trainer’s titles) when he was a dual purpose operator.
Though this may appear strange given the extraordinary levels of success globally he has engineered from Ballydoyle, I always feel some of his finest yet least heralded achievements revolve around the Champion Hurdle in Cheltenham.
At that, not only his annexation of three of them courtesy of the incomparable Istabraq. Perhaps even more so, the fact that he was also responsible for the steed who was generally in closest pursuance of his much more vaunted stable mate, in the guise of Theatreworld. Surely one of the most talented yet under-appreciated and unfortunate performers in recent history. In any other era, he would surely have got his march down the aisle, rather than perennially being bridesmaid to the flyer in the green and gold hooped silks.
Writing about the three-time Champion Hurdle winner – the first and so far only horse to do so since Nicky Henderson’s See You Then – seems eerily apt in current prevailing circumstances. Remember, this series of reflective wanders only arose due to the cessation of current sporting action – and damn near everything else in the world – owing to the ongoing Covid-19 situation.
What it has done, mind you, is demonstrated an upsetting similarity to the way life ground to a standstill to a very large degree due to the Foot And Mouth outbreak of 2001. No, before anyone mounts any moral horses, like is not being compared with like. The current storm in which the world finds itself engulfed is infinitely worse.
Primarily, of course, because in this instance it’s humans that are being struck down in the current crisis whereas it was their bovine equivalent who succumbed in their droves 19 years ago. Also, the disease which played havoc with the agriculture and agrifood sectors and several others besides was, as far as can be recalled, confined to the island of Ireland and Britain. However, this time around, the virus, which seemingly originated in either China or Italy has rapidly morphed into a global pandemic which scarily shows no sign of abating any time soon.
My reasoning for – very loosely – comparing the two situations was, hardly shockingly to anyone, from a sporting perspective. When the cattle disease struck, I recall fixtures in various codes on both sides of the Irish Sea being called off. Temporarily in that case. Things like the Six Nations in rugby, GAA’s National Leagues and, of most relevance to the subject matter presently at hand, the Cheltenham Festival.
For reasons which could never really understood – or were never properly explained – the last named was the only one of the deferred events not to be re-fixed. Thus, what would surely have been another glorious chapter of racing’s annals, Istabraq’s fourth consecutive term to reign supreme in the two mile hurdle division never got the chance to be.
By the time the Foot And Mouth outbreak had come and gone, yours truly had exited secondary education and was half way through my stretch in Third Level in Ballyfermot College of Further Education. As part of one of my assignments during my final year therein, the brief was to interview somebody of relevance in the media at that particular time.
Being only about three weeks out from the Cheltenham Festival, there was only individual there was any interest in liaising with – multiple times Champion Trainer Noel Meade (pictured above). Even though I had begun to go racing in Fairyhouse with Eoghan Lynch and Johnny O’Connor the previous winter, at that stage it still couldn’t have been said with conviction that this corner was properly attuned – to the Irish scene at least.
Noel Meade, however, was the exception. Possibly because of his name. Or maybe it was because his horses, at that time, wore a big distinguishing white noseband. It’s most likely, though, that it was knowing that he was a GAA fanatic – as evidenced by all his racing apparel being green and gold and his two horse lorries carrying photos of Colm O’Rourke and Graham Geraghty respectively. Indeed, as far as can be recalled, after Sean Boylan’s side had unforgettably won the All Ireland in 1996, he gave the team the ‘use’ of a horse in order to raise funds for a team holiday.
THE SPIRITUAL HOME OF MEATH SPORT
In a stroke of pure luck, I happened to be going to college with Mark Grassick, son of horse trainer Michael, at the time. He gave my Noel’s phone number and, having rang the office in Tu Va, eventually got hold of the man himself down on the gallops where he was supervising a few lots riding work.
He’d always come across as an absolute gentleman any time I’d ever seen him been interviewed and after about 40 seconds talking to the man it was obvious that said impression was indeed the correct one. Once I explained to him that I was in a wheelchair, he couldn’t have been any more understanding or accommodating.
Very generously, he invited me down to the yard to see the horses in morning work. To my utmost and perhaps eternal regret, I immediately jumped in and said that due to my circumstances it wouldn’t be feasible instead of pulling up for a moment, thinking it through and coming up with a solution that was surely workable if I hadn’t panicked.
It felt like the man I was about to interview was equally as disappointed as was the occupant of this seat. In fairness to him, he went above and beyond, saying that it didn’t matter where it had to happen, we’d make it happen. Straight away, in my mind, Dunboyne was ruled out. Seeing as Noel was being so obliging as it was, asking him to come all the way up from Castletown would’ve been extracting the urine. Besides that, it was known that there’d be far too many gawkers and gossips if we’d met locally.
Having weighed everything up, there was one venue sticking out like a beacon by way of ticking all the necessary boxes. A place which, to me, in many ways, is the spiritual home of sport in Meath. I refer, of course, to The County Club in Dunshaughlin. For so long the pick up and drop off point for Meath teams on glorious days and others when they valiantly fell on their sword.
More than that, it was the place of either celebration or consolation for most of the local clubs in the area like Dunshaughlin, Dunboyne, Drumree, Blackhall Gaels and so on. And yes, it attracted quite a horse racing crowd too. Naturally, in terms of Fairyhouse, the now sadly derelict Ryan’s of Ratoath or The Auld Stand or John Murphy in the Ratoath Inn would have first pick of the majority of the crowd.
However, if the numbers emerging from the racecourse were any way large, you could always be guaranteed ‘The Club’ would get their fair share of those in attendance. Indeed, not that many years ago, when another ale house and eatery of local fame, Caffreys of Batterstown, was closed for renovations, none other than Rich Ricci, he of the Blues Brothers-like attire, happened to be standing beside me when his flagship horse at the Mikael D-Haguenet, was sauntering to a Novice Chase success.
Once Paul Townend had steered the French-bred to a falrly comfortable success, I got chatting to the affable American. He proceed to tell me that when the racing was in Fairyhouse, he sometimes dined in Caffrey’s, but, with it out of action, he was going to Brian Peters’s renowned establishment.
So, if it was good enough for a man of Rich Ricci’s standing, where better to park up (I was going to say sit down) with one of my greatest sporting idols. As one does, I began by asking him all the mundane, rudimentary questions – what line of business he or his family were in before he got into racing.
When the response was farming (sheep I think, to be exact but I couldn’t swear on it) though it wasn’t thought to be possible, he went up a few more notches in my estimation. then, naturally, there was talk about his first winner, Tu Va (after whom his yard is named) which he rode himself to win a Bumper, defeating a steed partnered by one D.K. Weld in the process.
HE CAME, HE SAW, HE SHOULD HAVE CONQUERED
Our discussions eventually got around to what was the purpose for the interview in the first place – that year’s Cheltenham Festival. Now, very graciously, he gave as much of his time as was wanted or needed, going through whatever intended participants he had for Prestbury Park that year. Includding Harbour Pilot who, despite the presence of much more vaunted competitors in the field like (eventual winner) Best Mate and Beef Or Salmon, ran a massive race to finish third.
I’ll be honest though – and the trainer was advised of this at the time – the horse there was real interest in engaging in discourse about wasn’t even running at that particular season’s Festival. It would be beyond cruel to say flawed, so, let’s just say the enigmatic genius that was Harchibald.
To say the Perugino gelding was unique would be akin to declaring you’d be better off not getting the Corona virus. Back then, even being a French-bred marked him out as being different. Such an occurrence wasn’t anywhere near as prevalent as was to become so shortly afterwards and is still the case.
It was in the winter of 2002 I started going to the races, exclusively in Fairyhouse at first. What cannot be exactly recalled is whether it was thence or at Punchestown the star of Des Sharkey’s purple and gold silks was first witnessed. There is, mind you, absolute clarity about being in Punchestown (it was my first visit to the Kildare venue) when he captured the Morgiana Hurdle of 2004.
That was the day two things happened. Firstly, Paul Carberry’s mount really launched himself onto the big stage as a genuine contender in his sphere. And he also became my favourite horse. Scarcely a shock, I hear you say, that it’s one of Noel’s. Though there will undoubtedly be some who will, with justification, pinpoint innumerable others who could’ve claimed that accolade.
Hurricane Fly, Hardy Eustace, Moscow Flyer, Spot Thedifference, Garde Champetre, Uncle Junior and Quevega are only a few on a list that could stretch from here to eternity.
However, anybody who has been taking in my output for any length of time will know of my fondness for what we’ll call ‘colourful’ characters. Again, that’s being very conservative with the description. Think of a certain Irish soccer player, a lad who played a bit of rugby in green, an ex Meath footballer and a certain Mr Carberry. Well, Harchibald was their equine equivalent.
After his victory in the Morgiana, Meade’s charge franked his standing towards the pinnacle of his discipline with stunning defeats of the Graham Wylie-owned Inglis Drever in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and – even more noteworthy – reigning kingpin in the two mile division, Philip Hobbs’s Rooster Booster, in comprehensive fashion via a trademark cheeky Paul Carberry armchair job!
Having won his two warm up races across the water as well as one of the recognised trials for the March showpiece here at home, the then 6-year-old was in line for a huge financial bonus were he to land the big one.
Alas, if something looks too good to be true, it generally turns out as such. At this juncture, I should probably own up and admit that I’d actually had a fairly big – by my standards – ante post (before the day of the race, for those not familiar with betting parlance) on Hardy Eustace shortly after Christmas at 8/1.
For a few reasons. One, as the defending champion he was definitely overpriced at those odds. Second, having already won the Sun Alliance Novice Hurdle under the late Kieran Kelly and the top gong under Conor O’Dwyer in 2004, he had the course form which can count for so much at that particular venue.
Lastly, in all honesty, gut feeling was that Harchibald was too short in the market. As a certain old song used to say, it was like being “Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, loving both of them (sic) was breaking all the rules”. Every beat of my heart wanted ‘Harchi’ to win, for Noel, for Paul, for owner Des Sharkey who’d been a patron of Tu Va for years. Maybe mostly though for the horse himself, who was as divisive a character among the public as Roy Keane or Eric Cantona ever were.
Then, there was a realisation that, given the Meade horse’s known quirks, shall we say, the title holder wasn’t going to be easily dislodged from his podium. So, you might call this a cop-out, but, in the end, the only way my head could find peace was to do a reverse forecast with the two of them on the morning of the race. Meaning hoping the two of them to be first or second in any order.
So to race day, Tuesday, March 15th 2005. If years of following Harchibald, and the man atop his back, had taught me anything, it was don’t panic. Never panic. Thus, when Conor O’Dwyer set off to make the running on the defending champ, there was no great cause for, or sense of, alarm. Even once, after jumping two out and turning for home, both Mac’s Joy and Brave Inca sidled up to tackle Hardy, the sight of ‘Alice’ (Carberry) high in the irons, seemingly ice in his veins, meant no panic.
To the last. The big white noseband sails over it like a seagull following a trawler. Not yet. In fact, the Ratoath man takes a pull, before sliding his old pal into the middle of the group. Wait Paul. Hold onto him. But then. Before the Meade team can get the revs up to wake man and beast from their customary slumber, Hardy Eustace had flown. The sardines stayed on the trawler, and the seagull was left unfed!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vanquished pilot came in for a fairly rough time afterwards. Mostly from soured punters talking through their pinched pockets.Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been on that bus. Probably will be again. But, on the day in question, I don’t believe PC could or should have done anything differently.
A view that was vindicated by the rider himself when, in his autobiography, he said that, if he had made one error that day, it was, ironically, asking his partner to go to war too early. Paul’s take on the matter actually led to a very ‘interesting’ situation prior to the great rivals locking horns again at Punchestown.
You could hardly blame the trainer for wanting to avoid a repeat of what happened a month previously. Consequently, the man doing the steering was advised that if he was anywhere near the premises coming to the last and had sufficient reserves underneath him, to kick on. It duly came to pass that such was exactly the scenario which panned out.
The famous son of the even more famous father promptly carried out the instructions to the letter. Only to, almost ironically, get nabbed on the line by Brave Inca. Suspicion has always been that if it was anybody bar AP McCoy on Colm Murphy’s charge, there’s no way he would have got up. But then, if my aunt was kitted out differently she’d be my uncle.
STILL THE ONE
From my perspective, whatever about the disappointment of the horse not winning, there’s a story which has emerged from that time which gives me a chuckle now and it’d be hoped with the passage of time would do the same for those involved. In his second autobiography, One Hell Of A Ride the former champion jockey talks about his reaction to that particular defeat. Put a lot less colourfully than it was between the pages, the horseman let it be known to his employer that he’d be devising his own tactics in future!
As far as this punter/pundit/fan was concerned they were still the one combination that would be sought out when going in search of winners. And, thankfully, for them and my pocket, they were many great days for my spirits (and my pocket!) before injury forced Paul to call time on his, eh, eventful career!
Foremost among them was surely Go Native’s victory in the Supreme Novice Hurdle. Cheltenham hasn’t been the happiest of hunting grounds for Noel Meade – Sausalito Bay being his first successful sojourn up the famed hill. Nicanor achieving the second some years later. In that instance, he was in a unique position in that he was the first steed to conquer the brilliant Denman, and the only one to do so for a long time.
However, it was Noel’s third Festival winner – Go Native – of which there are fondest memories in this seat. By then, racing had become so much more than an interest. Wasn’t it the cruelest of ironies, though, that on one of the best days in the career of the man who kissed the ground when he first found his way into the winners enclosure at the Gloucester venue, wasn’t even in attendance as he was recovering from major back surgery.
Strip away the fact that a rather large wager was placed on the eventual winner at 12/1 – and that several others were directed accordingly beforehand – greatest joy was for the man responsible for sending the winner out. First off, for the basic reasons – he was Irish, he was from Meath and Paul had ridden the horse.
For me, however, this time around, there was a much more personal element to it. From the time he granted me the interview which changed my life in more ways than the obvious, where time allows, he’ll always stop for a chat. There’s nothing does the occupant of this seat better than if Noel, Eoghan Lynch, myself and either Colm or Shane O’Rourke end up together for a confab. No matter how brief.
While moving in, or even loosely connected to such circles, it would hardly be the biggest turn up that one would end up bitten with the bug of inclination to get into ownership or even part ownership of a horse. If said ambition was to become a reality, there was only one place on God’s earth I’d wan to send it – Tu Va.
NEVER TOO OLD TO DREAM
Sadly, life mustn’t read romantic scripts too often. Dreams very seldom do come true. From the off, it was unfortunately all too clear that sole ownership was a definite non runner due to the financials involved. Exploratory talks, if you were to title them thus, were held with Noel on a few different days in Fairyhouse.
His advice was to try the syndicate route. Get a group of about four people together – not too many more – to try and spread the costs. That, it was could have been very doable.
So much so, in fact, that I’d gone so far as to have a set of silks designed by a college friend who had a programme on their computer for doing textile designs.
Yellow jacket, black sleeves and black star, green cap, gold star. That was to be the ensemble. And, any steed purchased would be christened Toms Field.
Sometimes, though, things just aren’t meant to be. Two accomplices was the most that could be mustered at any one time. Thus, eventually out of fairness to Noel, one of the most upsetting phone calls of my life had to be made to Castletown to inform the boss there that the operation was going to have to be left at the start.
They – whoever they happen to be – say that it’s a long road that has no turning. Life is full of ups and downs. Lord knows our family had enough of the latter when I was growing up.
Which meant that, regrettably, dad having to do business with undertakers was all too familiar. Little did any of us realise that one of that trade would become one of his best friends.
Ollie Cunnigham moved down to Dunboyne when he retired from the family Funeral Director business in Clonsilla. One day, the two of them met when Ollie was out walking his two beloved dogs in our field.
So began a friendship that saw the undertaker become an almost daily visitor to our home. Very quickly, it became apparent that, not only did they know an awful lot of the same people, they both had a serious passion for horse racing.
Except in Ollie’s case it was more an obsession than passion – like me with farming I suppose. He’d been involved in horses with Noel Meade, Pat Martin and Joe Fox. When I met him, he’d just bought what was potentially the best horse he ever had.
However, by that stage, he was extremely hard of hearing. Hence, I more or less became his Racing Manager, not in any official or paid capacity. More a case of acting as an interpretor between himself and trainer, Tom Taaffe. In the parade ring before and after races, and, even more so, on the phone. Planning and reviewing outings.
In so doing, allowing me to live my racing dream via a different avenue. Only for fate to horribly intervene again.
Days before the horse was due to be roughed off and turned out for the summer, he suffered an injury which would’ve kept him out for 12 to 18 months.
That horse was the centre of Ollie Cunningham’s world. Within days of it getting injured he took ill and, to the indescribable heartache of so many of us, passed away.
There went my racing dream once again. However, the wheels of life never stop turning. Gut feeling is the chance might roll around again. Never say never!