No matter what one’s interests are in life, if they become a big enough part of your life, it moves away from the realm of pass time to something more significant. Then, if you happen to be blessed like me, it can be how you earn your few bob as well. I wouldn’t call it a job, very much a labour of love.
The major debate which has erupted in this seat over the years is as to whether GAA or horse raclng is or at least were top of the pile. Truth is, there’s probably no right answer. Both have different roles to play when it comes to these wheels negotiating their way through life.
Without doubt though, National Hunt racing has become essential to getting through the winter months. Especially now that it appears the GAA are hell bent on having more months without action that with during the year.
At the epicentre of how pivotal racing has become to me is and forever will be Fairyhouse. The place has become a huge part of my life. For myriad reasons. Firstly, due to the kindness and support of Peter Roe and his staff. Secondly as it’s my version of Cheltenham and probably the nearest I’ll ever get to the latter. Lastly and most importantly, because of the people you meet there.
Old friends, new friends and heroes who have become treasured friends. As is often the way with me, a day in Fairyhouse is always a matter of routine. Or at least used to be. Eoghan Lynch would pick up the couple of racecards and then we wander up to the usual meeting spot – outside the weigh room.
Ensuring that even if I didn’t get talking to some of those in the racing fraternity I know best – Noel Meade, Tony Martin, Jim or Lynsey Dreaper, Tom Taaffe or Paul Nolan – some of the rest of our ‘Racing gang’ might have heard some whispers from the weigh room.
Now, as anyone who has been ingesting content in this space for any length of time will know, for reasons I can’t even fully define myself, greatest solace has been attained in the company of those much older than myself. The greatest example of which was and forever will be the late Tom Yourell. But it didn’t matter if it was in the pub at night or, in this case, at the races.
The gang outside the weigh room was usually made up of some or all of Nicky O’Connor (and his grandson Sean Yourell) and Tim Donnelly and Kit Manning and Joe Finglas and Charlie ‘Chucker’ Reilly. Three of those mentioned were former employees of the Dreaper Racing empire when it was at its zenith. Imortalised in a photograph captioned “The lads of Dreapers Yard” which is still regularly appearing in the media.
Initially, Nicky was my chief source. Simply because I’d known of him long before I became properly invested in the racing world. My sister Anna and his daughter Pauline became friends many years ago. When I was in the formative stages of becoming properly attuned to the world of horse racing, he took me under his wing. The plan was always around the same, meet outside the weigh room, with the standard greeting “Did you hear anything?” – and invariably he had.
All of that came back to mind during the week when it was learnt that another one of the ‘Dreaper Lads’ Joe Finglas made his way to the gallops up above. Naturally, it was through Nicky that I got to know Joe. It will probably be fairly obvious too that Himself (Arkle) nearly without fail always made it into the day’s discussions.
From my point of view, it was great to hear as many stories about and perspectives on Himself as was possible. Even though it was actually Johnny Lumley who looked after The Greatest, everybody had an opinion or a memory or a story. From my own late father being in Mullingar the day he ran his first ever race, to those who knew him best, to Tom Taaffe whose dad Pat was the other half of the original Dynamic Duo.
Then there was the local connection, Himself was foaled out the road at Ballymacoll Stud. For me, the special personal connection was accrued in meeting and getting to work with Jim Dreaper’s daughter Lynsey at the fundraising for the Arkle statue which now takes pride of place in Ashbourne, Co Meath.
Of course, the Dreaper kingdom was resplendant with lots of other equine royalty besides Arkle. Indeed there were those – Joe Finglas among them – who, with convinction, would assert that his greatest competition or – dare it be said – his better resided in the stable next door in Greenogue – Flying Bolt.
Then there was Prince Regeant and Fortria and Fort Leney and Merry Gale and Brown Lad and Harcon. That’s only a quickly cobbled together handful, any such list could be a never ending story.
Joe had a story about them all and travelled far and wide with many of them. Indeed, while the fundraising was ongoing for the statue, it was discovered that there was only one course in Ireland at which he hadn’t led a horse up, Limerick.
Fittingly, that was put to right at a fundraising race at Limerick for the statue in 2013. Joe led Jim up on a horse called Noble Investment. Thus completing his working tour of duty around the country. Though I’d say many share the view that it’ll over the jumps closest to he’ll be missed most.
Sadly there are enough of the lads from Dreaper’s yard in the Steward’s Room above now to have a proper inquiry into the Arkle/Flying Bolt debate. I wonder what price would you get on a Dead Heat? Rest In Peace Joe.