Thursday, 13 August 2015

Racing on the Emerald Isle

You think the Welsh are friendly, but the Irish are fabulous. ~ Bonnie Tyler

That's just one way of describing them. There's also funny, charming, relaxed.  The Irish accent has always been my favourite accent; I love their general outlook on life, the fact that any Irishman can own a horse, and race it. Despite several trips to Ireland, and plenty of racing friends over there, I had never set foot in a harness racing track in Ireland before last weekend.

Four separate trips to Ireland in the past 8 years have included two rugby matches, the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown and the Irish National Stud, but the closest I got to harness racing was staying with Joe Sheridan and his family at Springhill Stud for a couple of days last spring with Rachel (Wellfield Stud's resident trainer).  Every year, Irish racing fans travel across to the UK for Appleby, Aberystwyth, Musselburgh, Tregaron and numerous meetings at York and Tir Prince, so I figured it was time I paid a return visit.

By the time Friday night came, I wasn't looking as forward to it as I had been due to racing-related hassle at Corbiewood the night before but I figured two days of racing without having to film races/locate a photographer/deal with sponsors/hand out rosettes/work on the gate would be what I needed.

I couldn't have been more right.

I didn't want to come home on Sunday night.  The problem was that if I didn't come home Sunday night, I might never have come home at all.

Don't get me wrong, Irish harness racing has all the same in-fighting and politics that Scottish harness racing does, the difference is that I am not remotely immersed in it.  People don't want or need me to fix problems, or complain to me about the way races are framed or the distances they're run over.  It was like a glimpse back to what racing used to be like for me - having a good time, watching the racing, having a few drinks and chatting to people who enjoy the same things as me.

Portmarnock was pretty mobbed both days, but the layout means that people are almost coralled into a smaller space which gives the effect that it's mayber busier than it is.  There's only five bookies, same as Tir Prince, and a decent grandstand, same as York.  The bar is the best of the hard tracks I've been to, not the biggest but pretty nice.

The racing was excellent, track records falling left, right and centre.  Rewrite History was the sole Scottish winner across the weekend in the 3YO heat and final, breaking the track record in the heat and then beating his own record in the final.  Other major points of interest were Miraculous winning the Vincent Delaney Memorial Final (he is the Art's Conquest half-brother to last year's victor, Titanium, who was sadly put to sleep on Saturday morning following complications encountered during an operation for colic), the fact I not only bet the horse (with someone else's money, and if you're reading this then I will pay you your stake money back when I see you next, I promise!) but I managed to back him at evens when he was a 1-2 shot.  The bookie owed me a favour as I'd walked into the track on the Saturday afternoon and offered to put his runners in the computer for him.  I suppose I was a clerk on tour, and very few people can fire a full racecard of runners into a laptop as fast as me!

Meadowbranch DJ won the fourth and final leg of the Inter-Dominion qualifying series so him and his connections will be flying out to Perth, Australia once they complete the specified time in quarantine.  I wish them well, as DJ will be flying the flag not only for Ireland but for the United Kingdom as well.

Once again though, and I will never tire of saying this, it's the people that make this sport so amazing.  There's very few places in the world that I could walk into and feel instantly at home.  It was great to catch up with the Sheridans again, and people like the Carberrys and my wee pal Sean Duggan (who has to be the most cheerful guy in the entire universe).  It was also the chance to see people I met at Aberystwyth again - the guy Gerry who was genuinely excited about life and Paul and Deano as well who made my Friday night at Aber with their wine and dancing.  Then there was the new people, the ones who are total strangers until you strike up conversation about something - usually horses - and suddenly you feel like you've known them forever and you can't remember a time that they weren't your friend.  At a two-day meeting like that, when you meet folk on the first day, you end up spending time with them on the second day as if you spend days at the races together all the time.

What I will say though is this:  you have to be open-minded about meeting new people.  If you turn up at a race meeting not wanting to make new friends or chat to people you only know by name, then these people won't force themselves upon you.  My best friend was genuinely surprised to have been so quickly accepted into the sport despite the fact that her knowledge and interest in horses is practically non-existent; I explained to her that if you're willing to talk to people, they will talk to you.  And then they just don't stop talking, and before you know it your summer is full of weekends away and beer tents and trying to beg the best price about a horse and jumping in people's winner's photos and arguing over who the best horse in the country is, or what's going to win the final.

I came back from Ireland rejuvenated and looking forward to the next few weeks of racing.  Tuesday night (11th) saw me at Tir Prince, tonight (13th) I'm at Corbiewood, Saturday and Sunday (15th/16th) I'll be at the big York two-day meeting, then Monday (17th - which happens to be my birthday) I'll be at Scorton; Thursday (20th) at Corbiewood, Saturday night (22nd) at Tir Prince for Crock of Gold night, Sunday (23rd) at Boughrood to hopefully see Young Stephen race.  Then it's the week that people who love racing usually just dream about, and I'll be one of very few people who will do this - Thursday (27th) at Corbiewood, Friday/Saturday/Sunday (28th/29th/30th) at Tregaron, Monday (31st) at Appleby and then Tuesday (1st Sept) at Kilnsey Show. That's racing from the highest level right down to the bottom and I am looking forward to each of them as much as the rest.

So thank you Ireland, to your people who reminded me what life is all about, and racing too.  I'll be back next year.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

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