The Tuesday after Easter, 2002. It was either late March or early April. Even allowing for that though, the weather had a particularly arctic air to it. In time I would become all too familiar with the reality that this was just Fairyhouse being itself, but this was a baptism of fire. Well, actually, to be more accurate, a baptism of ice. A sheet of hybrid sleet-snow drove in from Ballyhack towards the Arkle Bar. Not knowing the run of the place, yours truly was out totally at the mercy of the elements.
Though the above would be an apt starting point with the return of spectators to courses looming large, that isn’t its purpose in appearing here. Reasons for its mention are threefold. One as it was my first time at the Ratoath venue. Second because, apart from it being a slightly belated 71st birthday present for da and thirdly to see Royal Jake run in the Powers Gold Cup – as it was then. The attraction being that the gelding was own by the Callaghan family from Dunderry. Barry, Keith and David (Lar) having been encountered for the first time shortly beforehand. Friendships which I am delighted to say have stood the test of time.
Indeed, aside from Dunboyne’s Jack Kinlough playing a starring role at midfield and poignant recollections of the late Tommy Mahon, Lar being a selector just added another layer of personal connection to last week’s epic All Ireland winning Meath Minor footballers.
Yet even all of the above are not the main reasons for what you are reading. You see, the winner of the big race that day nearly two decades ago was the Ger Lyons trained Big And Bold. Yes, you did read that correctly. At that time, the Kiltale-based trainer was as adept at churning out winners over jumps as is now the case on the flat.
Having had a good career as a jockey over jumps, it would have been no surprise to see him making such a good go of it. However, if ever there was an arena where a pat on the back is only six inches from a kick in the backside, horse racing is it. Which for Ger came when he lost his star chaser thereafter.
Consider that when Noel Meade began training in 1971, he was predominantly doing business on the Flat scene before the arrival of the likes of the Coolmore ‘syndicate’ and some of the major Arab operators made it a minefield in which to try and make a living.
Which makes Lyons’s decision to go in the opposite direction, vacating the jumps scene and concentrate on the level all the more commendable. In fact, the progress to emanate from Glenburnie Stables is the greatest endorsement of the trainer’s prowess and ability there could be.
However, in a story that, you suspect and hope, has many more chapters to be added to it, another highly significant entry being generated earlier this week when the sponsor of Kiltale Hurling Club sent out his 1,000th winner as a trainer. An amazing feat by any trainer at any time but in an environment where there is a three-pronged salvo from within the O’Brien dynasty alone and more trainers than ever bolstered by stock in Far East ownership it is eve more noteworthy.
That said, it should be pointed out that Ger has – belatedly in my view – received an infusion of stock from the ‘big boys ‘ – Coolmore and a couple of the Arab operations. Even though several winners were sent out from Glenburnie in his silks – including the Shane O’Rourke bred Sweet Sounds – Sheikh Fahad very unfairly in the opinion of this writer drew stumps on the yard near Dunsany. However, the trainer’s alacrity at turning out winners and the burgeoning nature of his operation wasn’t lost on the major players in the industry.
Not only have Coolmore and Juddmonte and Moyglare and Maurice Regan’s Newtown Anner Stud given the former jockey their inestimable backing but the faith shown in Lyons and his team has been repaid with interest, in the shape of the handler’s first victories at the highest level. Courtesy of Siskin in the silks of the late HH Khalid Abdullah (Juddmonte) and Even So in Sue Magnier’s pink for Coolmore.
Yet there was something very fitting that it was Offiah – owned by David Spratt, Sean Jones and Ger’s wife Lynne which brought up the 1,000th success. Every business needs a foundation stone on which to build and it was unquestionably the support of those mentioned immediately above which has made the growth and success of operations at Glenburnie possible.
I can only speculate, but a guess would be ventured that, outside of his own area of expertise, Ger’s favourite ‘other’ sport would be motorsport. His son Jack is definitely quite a talent therein and as far as can be recalled daughter Kerrie may also be involved. However, it’s seems a fairly safe bet that somebody closely associated with the yard is an aficionado of either or both codes of rugby. As it can only be assumed the steed which brought up the milestone statistic for the Lyons team – Offiah – was named in honour of the great Martin, a legend on the oval ball fields.
Now, at this stage it must be admitted that I’ve never met Ger, yet, but have always maintained a keen interest in the fortunes of his yard for several reasons. Firstly, because a friend of mine, Shannon Watters worked in the office in Glenburnie, secondly, memories of the late Brian Reilly extolling the virtues of one Colin Keane long before he’d ever set foot on a racecourse.
Thirdly from the time Sweet Sounds won. Some wisecrack once said you should never meet your heroes, but in my case that has proven to be complete equine excriment. Colm O’Rourke was my hero from the first time I saw him action ‘in the flesh’. That hasn’t changed, even if he was joined on that plinth by Graham Geragthy, but in both cases, during the intervening years, both men have become treasured friends.
However, what is even more special perhaps, is the friendship which has blossomed between Shane and I. The fourth reason there is a fondness for Ger Lyons is, quite simply, the man himself. Again, I have never met Ger, but, as well as his talent at training horses, I love his humility and ordinary-ness.
That is meant in the most complimentary way possible. He has proven that, no matter who you are or what your start point, you can get to where you want to be. Moreover, he is not afraid uo speak out on the issues of the day in racing.
Anyone who has perused racing output in this space for any length of time will know the preference in this seat is for National Hunt. There has, mind you, been a deeper interest in affairs of the Flat. Through the connection with a certain somebody mentioned above and – even more so – the increasing proflle and success of Ger Lyons.
I know one of his major bugbears is the gaps there can be in flat action there can be at the time which should be peak season for that particular discipline. Taking that into account, it was even more of a remarkable achievement that Ger, almost single handedly, fueled Colin Keane’s maiden journey to being Champion Jockey. Something all the more praise-worthy when it is recalled that Lynne Lyons was quite ill at the time also.
Keane has gone on to put more titles under his belt and the flat racing world is still very much his oyster. Likewise, there are many more chapters to be written into his boss’s story. Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come.