Daragh Ó Conchúir
Any Sport Will Do



view:  full / summary

McDaid and Okunbor to trial at AFL Combine

Posted on 26 May, 2017 at 5:55

GALWAY senior Cillian McDaid and last year’s All-Ireland minor winner with Kerry Stefan Okunbor have been invited to attend the annual AFL Draft Combine in Melbourne in October.

The pair trained with the AFL Academy in Florida in January, along with David Shaw (Kerry) and Evan Murphy (Galway), impressing with their athleticism and ball skills, as well as their interviews with the scouts from various clubs.

They will travel to Australia in September to train once more with the academy players before attending the national trials at Etihad Stadium.

McDaid, who starred as Galway reached the All-Ireland U21 final this year and played in the course of the westerners’ successful Allianz League campaign, has been on the radar for some time.

“He starred in the U21 Gaelic competition and he's been out to the US a couple of times and continues to improve and still focus on a potential AFL career” the AFL's national and international talent manager Kevin Sheehan told AFL.com.au.

“He tested 2.90 seconds for his speed, so he's certainly quick and he's skilful on both sides of the body. His agility is elite, and he's worked very hard to improve his Sherrin (football) skills.”

The 6’3" Okunbor caught the eye too, showing plenty of pace and athleticism for such a powerful individual.

“He trained the house down with our boys and is desperate for a chance at the professional level” said Sheehan. “He's got that speed and endurance combination, he works hard. He'd run straight through a brick wall for you and loves the physical contact.”

The pair will follow the likes of Essendon's Conor McKenna, Sydney's Colin O'Riordan, St Kilda duo Ray Connellan and Darragh Joyce, and recent Geelong debutant Mark O'Connor as Irish players who have come through the pathway to get selected by AFL clubs.

Clubs will watch the hopefuls at the combine and will also be free to put in offers to them if they are interested in listing them as category B rookies. Under those rules, the international athletes are free agents, so can sign with any AFL club at any time.

Sheehan said that Ireland would continue to be a potential source for talent but is aware very few will make it.

“We know it's a small market, there's just an odd kid who is prepared to make a massive change in his life to pursue a professional career. It's as simple as that.

“Many boys are happy to stay as amateurs and continue to play Gaelic football, and that's fine. But there is a small number who are prepared to make a massive sacrifice, so we give a couple a chance to try and fulfil that dream.”

The international scouting programme is run by former Kerry and Sydney player Tadhg Kennelly, with players from all over the world being tested for traits that would be suited to elite Aussie rules football.

Speaking from Florida in January, Okunbor made his ambition to pursue this opportunity clear.

“I’m in college in Limerick and study engineering and I can't see myself sitting at a desk the rest of my life” said the Na Gaeil teenager. “I want to reach my full potential and use my athleticism somewhere.

“The whole idea of a professional set-up: get up, train, sleep and do it again every day, is something I'd love to do.”

McDaid echoed those comments.

“I really want to give it a go and have no regrets” said McDaid. “Last year talking to recruiters I got a real idea about how hard they want people to work, so I tried to find that level in the past year.

“They seemed happy enough with how I was going last year but I was still doing school so that might have been a bit of a problem. I've strengthened up a little over the past year and have played more senior football back home.

“My skills are good now and I'm happy enough with the footy. Kicking wise and on both feet I think I've improved.”

Zach on the up with fresh challenge

Posted on 24 May, 2017 at 0:25

ZACH Tuohy chuckles at the memory of that first phone call from AFL scout Gerard Sholly. At 17, he didn’t know an Australian accent from a Nigerian one.

On ‘Hello’, the brain computed Ulster and reasoned that this must be a journalist from the north, wanting to talk about the All-Ireland minor semi-final replay that Laois had just lost to Derry.

Once Sholly got a few more words out and asked if the Portlaoise teenager might fancy trying out at an AFL training camp in University of Limerick, Tuohy tuned in very quickly.

He had obviously created an impression when scoring two goals to trigger a second-half comeback in the drawn encounter and even the minutest chance of being a professional sportsman, albeit in a game he knew nothing about, did not perturb him in the slightest.

It went well and Carlton made contact. Tuohy impressed on trial subsequently and accepted the offer of an international rookie contract, making the move in October 2009.

“I had never flown anywhere by myself, not to mind going to Australia” recalls Tuohy. “When I first came out for a couple of weeks’ trial, going through Heathrow was the most terrifyingly scared I have ever been. I thought I was going to miss my flight and that would have been the end of the world in my mind.

“My parents have always encouraged me and it was very much my decision. They knew how sports crazy I was and how much I did want it. And they knew I wasn’t going to be silly when I came over and wasn’t going to be doing anything I shouldn’t be.

“My mother still won’t come to the airport to wave goodbye. She’s done it a few times but hasn’t done it for a long time. I’m here eight years now. It doesn’t get any easier I don’t’ think.”

The mental fortitude required to swap something you had always found easy and on a pedestal as a result of that, for being clueless and adopting a place at the bottom of the food chain is incalculable, particularly for a kid that has moved thousands of miles from home.

Cork prodigy Ciaran Sheehan had travelled with Tuohy to trial but was crippled by homesickness and did not make the transition for another four years. The pair had been staying with then Carlton chief executive Graeme Swann and he admitted to noting how Tuohy toughed it out, despite being on his own.

Even then, he could see long distance. It is the advice he imparts to the young Irish hopefuls that get in touch for some advice.

“It’s hard yards early… That first two-week trial, I didn’t enjoy it. I hated every second of it and still, when I went back home, there was no doubt in my mind I was going to come back. Once I came back for the real stuff, as a player, I just loved it.”

After making his debut in 2011, Tuohy played 120 games becoming only the fifth Irish player to hit the ton after Jim Stynes, Sean Wight, Tadhg Kennelly and Pearce Hanley.

His consistency and durability stand out too, as he has played the last 90 unbroken. It is a long way from the record of 244, which is held by the late Stynes but only three current players Sam Gibson (108), Dane Rampe (97) and Nathan Jones (97) are on a better run.

In 2015, the AFL coaches voted him onto their team of the year even though Carlton were performing horrendously and he has made a stunning start with new club Geelong, albeit in the pre-season JLT Series, racking up tallies of 33, 27 and 25 possessions.

Tuohy is filling a spot vacated by Corey Enright, a six-time All-Australian and triple premiership winner, who retired at the end of 2016. It doesn’t faze him but he wanted to create a good impression early on nonetheless.

“I’m not too fussed necessarily about what people outside think. I was really keen to show my new teammates what I could do. There’s only so much you can do in training. You never really know what to expect from somebody. So I was only interested in having a good first game for the lads I play with.

“The stuff about Boris (Enright) finishing up – you don’t’ replace guys like that, you just try your best along with other players to help fill the void he left. I’ve said many times, I’m certainly not him and I’d doubt very much if anyone will be as good as him again in what he did but I’ll try to fill the very, very big gap he left.”

Tuohy plays the counter-attacking position better than most and with the Cats’ AFL campaign getting under way tomorrow away to Fremantle, we can expect him to add to his 40 goals, many of which come from the outside the 50m arc. It is the lure of finals’ footy that motivates him most however.

“I think the more established I got at the top level here, the less comfortable I became with not having success in the long term. Obviously at the start, you want to play AFL and see if you can mix it at that level. That was nice for a little while but once you’ve established yourself, it just wasn’t enough anymore to play games. I really wanted to start winning some. We’ve only had one Irish guy win a premiership (Tadhg Kennelly) and I wouldn’t mind being the second.”

Tuohy's performances remained consistent as Carlton struggled, with the AFL coaches naming the Portlaoise man in their team of the year in 2015

Having served as a mentor to Sheehan and Ciaran Byrne at Carlton, he now has Kerry neophyte Mark O’Connor to take under his wing. Mention the annual hand-wringing that occurs when another handful of Irish boys are given the chance to do as he did – the ‘GAA helpless against AFL poaching’ headlines – and the chilled 27-year-old becomes quite animated.

50 GAA players that have been signed by AFL clubs since Melbourne’s Ron Barassi kicked off the Irish Experiement in 1982 with another Kerry product Wight. It wouldn’t qualify as a grain of sand in the context of 35 years. Of those, 19 have played senior games and fewer still enjoyed lengthy careers. Only seven have played more than 50.

It isn’t easy but it’s a dream and Tuohy wonders at the sense of entitlement behind the perception of threat.

“I get fierce riled up about this, it does my head in. Do people feel they have some rights over a young man’s future because they helped coach him when he was eight years old?

“If you want players to stay you have to offer them something. Football is great and we all want to play for our club and county but I wouldn’t mind having a decent lifestyle as well, and earn some good money, being able to play at a high level in front of thousands of people.

“Because somebody helped teach me to kick a ball when I was 10 years old, they should have some rights to where I end up? It’s outrageous that there is some kind of issue, that players shouldn’t be allowed go out of some misguided sense of loyalty.”

He knows his former coaches are proud of him and has returned home when available to help out Portlaoise, the club and town he retains such a love for. But this is his life and it is a good one.

His partner Rebecca settling in their new home and only having an hour to drive to work in Melbourne is central to that. Three-year-old Flynn is a ray of sunshine that would wipe prevailing gloom anyway. He bursts into the room, needing a packet of crisps opened.

This is the most important thing in the world.

He doesn’t know what the future holds beyond playing. He and Rebecca have an open mind. It has never been easy being away from home. Zach’s father Noel is a town councillor in Portlaoise, a retired prison warden who has made his battle with Parkinson’s Disease public while campaigning for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis to be used under prescription.

“He’s an interesting character, my old man. He’s incredibly passionate about what he does and you can hear it in his voice. Anybody who has ever heard him speak about anything he cares about at all, the eyes starts to squint and the body tenses up because he’s really passionate.

“Being away from the family is probably the hardest thing… Probably not being able to bring my son home to mix with my nieces and nephews and my family as much, that was easily the hardest thing of all the homesickness stuff there might have been.

“But, again, you put it in perspective, I have it pretty handy as well.”

Accentuating the positives and striving to make them better. It has always been his way, as Geelong supporters are about to find out.

Commissioned by and appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on March 25, 2017.

Walsh rejects criticism of AFL's recruitment of Irish players

Posted on 20 May, 2017 at 0:00

FORMER Cavan footballer and current AFL coach Nicholas Walsh has rejected criticism of the recruitment of GAA players by AFL clubs.

Mark O'Connor is just the 20th GAA recruit to play in the AFL

Walsh, who has been part of the coaching staff since the GWS Giants’ inaugural season in 2012, dismisses the depiction of recruiters as bogeymen luring unsuspecting youngsters away from a purer life.

He also rejects the notion that the GAA, who he worked for as children games’ development officer having previously spent five years as development officer of Cavan GAA, should be doing more to prevent players being offered the possibility of earning a living as sportsmen.

The former Breffni star’s own bid for success as a player with Melbourne Demons was scuppered by injuries and he returned home after three years.

“I used to watch it on TV with my Dad, every Saturday morning on T na G (TG4) as it was at the time” says Walsh.

“I always said to myself that if I was ever given an opportunity to play professional sport, I would love it, and that Aussie rules was the game that was closest to Gaelic football that would enable me to do it.

“The players coming over, they’re given an opportunity.

“I’m not saying it’s for everyone because it’s not. You had the likes of Seán Cavanagh, who decided not to come and he’s very happy with that. He’s played 15 years for Tyrone, has three All-Irelands under his belt, numerous All Stars, a good job and a lovely family. It was the best decision for him.

“Other guys came and didn’t make it like myself and numerous others. And then you have maybe four or five others that have really made it since 1984. Why are people so bothered?

“Looking into it, most of the players that have gone back to Ireland have been successful enough with their counties too, bar a couple.”

Only 50 players have signed contracts with AFL clubs since the late Seán Wight was recruited by Melbourne in 1982. Apart from Wight, only Jim Stynes, Tadhg Kennelly, Pearce Hanley and Zach Tuohy have played more than 100 games.

Stynes is the sole GAA recruit to win a Brownlow medal as player of the year and Kennelly, the only Grand Final winner.

On Saturday, dual All-Ireland winner with Kerry, Mark O’Connor became just the 20th former GAA player to play in the AFL when making his debut for Geelong.

Walsh notes that established players are taking time out in the middle of their GAA careers to pursue social or professional opportunities. Waterford hurler Tom Devine is the latest to do so, with the likes of footballers Jack McCaffrey (Dublin) and Jamie Clarke (Armagh) now returned after taking time out.

Another Dublin All Star Rory O’Carroll is missing his second season however, having gone to New Zealand, while Paul Durcan has not played for Donegal either since 2015 after moving to Qatar.

In that context, Walsh cannot comprehend the negativity surrounding young players trying their hands at the professional game.

“It’s an experience. If I had a young son and I was living in Ireland, and he wanted to go to Australia or even go play soccer in England, I’d never stand in his way. People talk about the love of the club – I still love Cavan Gaels and every time I’m home I go to watch the games, but there was an opportunity for me.

“It’s the player’s choice at the end of the day. Ciarán Kilkenny decided that it wasn’t for him and he’s gone home and won three All-Irelands.

“It’s very hard to make it and very few do. But I don’t understand why some people view it as a threat. For a start, the stats tell you that very few make it and players return home having been exposed to a professional high performance set-up. They also have the travelling thing done and are of an age when they’re ready to step up to inter-county level.

“But apart from that, it’s no different to going to America or anywhere else to get a job. It’s an opportunity and most of us growing up dreamed of playing sport for a living. It’s the dream.”

Holden out for a hero

Posted on 16 May, 2017 at 6:40

AROUND Kilkenny, if the names Shefflin, Cody and Holden come in conversation, the likelihood is that hurling will be the topic, with Henry, Brian and Joey having captained the Noresiders to All-Ireland success at the highest level, Henry considered one of the best to ever play the game and Brian possibly the greatest manager of a sports team this country has seen.

Ellmarie Holden celebrates another success with parents Paul and Catherine, and jockey Rachael Blackmore, after Ex Patriot shed his maiden status at Fairyhouse in January (Photo by Caroline Norris)

If the chat included just Shefflin and Holden, there would be a chance that Ballyhale was the subject. The tiny village is home to the most successful hurling club in the history of the All-Ireland club championship, winning six titles. It has produced some of the finest stickmen to have graced the planet, and the Shefflins and Holdens have been prominent in that success story.

Always being greedy, Cody had a couple of triumphs at that grade too, with city outfit James Stephens.

There is a stirring though, the germination at least of a new success story around Ballyhale that might shift the dialogue away from the norm in that neck of the woods.

In a county where football, soccer, rugby and just about any other sport failed to make any considerable imprint, racing has always been the second sport. Doninga was home to Dawn Run, Hurry Harriet, Herring Gull and Vintage Tipple. It was where Paddy Mullins created a legend and a dynasty. Even in this sphere, hurling has its grip, as former triple All-Ireland winner, Kieran Purcell has gone on to sample some good times as a trainer in Windgap.

Now, the tentacles are spreading to Ballyhale and having an impact in a manner that nothing outside of hurling has ever done. And that is due to the remarkable rise of Ellmarie Holden – and the important roles in that played by her parents Paul and Catherine, her assistant Ray Cody and bloodstock agent, Michael Shefflin.

Ellmarie is a “distant cousin” of Joey’s she reckons but never had much interest in hurling or camogie. As long as she can remember, she has been consumed by horses and due to a widespread family involvement, was exposed to an idyllic playground.

Her grandfather Pake had a handler’s licence and her aunt Monica Hartley serving as his assistant. Pake also had a few horses with Joe Crowley and David O’Brien. Meanwhile, Pake’s wife Nellie Holden was a regular at the RDS as a breeder. Breeding was also prominent on the other side of the family, courtesy of Holden’s maternal grandfather David Murphy and uncle Johnny Murphy, so it was the most natural thing in the world for her parents to have a few broodmares and young stock around.

Like many children up and down the land, she was self-taught, tacking up the ponies and hunters, and firing them at any available obstacle. Hunting remains a passion to this day but all she could think of was training racehorses and when the family purchased a cross-country facility, the possibilities unfolded in front of her. Initially, she took a handler’s licence to prepare some of the younger horses and had a couple of winners on the point-to-point circuit. Last June, the then 26-year-old took the plunge into racing under Rules and has taken to it like almost everyone else around her took to a camán and sliotar.

“I was wanting to do it for years” regales Holden. “Then my dad built new gallops after buying a farm off John Fogarty. He had horses with Eoin Doyle for years, and Shark Hanlon. He had a couple with Gordon Elliott and Philip Rothwell as well. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do and I just said I’d take out the licence and train them! It was a big thing to take the horses from all these big top trainers to give to me but he did it.”

This is probably the most competitive time in the history of national hunt racing in Ireland, and only recently, Horse Racing Ireland acknowledged as much by setting up a new programme in a bid to provide some relief.

Trainers have always relied on patronage though and Holden was fortunate to have a ready team provided by her parents, Paul and Catherine. Swantykay was her first runner and almost gave her the fairytale start, beaten just under a length in a beginners’ chase at Clonmel on June 10.

She didn’t have to wait long to get off the mark though, as Static Jack bolted up in a bumper just down the road at Gowran Park. Sir Jack Yeats claimed a handicap hurdle at Bellewstown, the remarkably consistent My Direction landed two flat handicaps and it has gone along those lines since. In all, she has registered 13 winners from 77 runners over both codes, including Ex Patriot’s brilliant fourth in the Triumph Hurdle on her debut at the Cheltenham Festival.

The former Ger Lyons charge is a hugely promising prospect that may appear in the Grade 2 juvenile hurdle at Fairyhouse on Monday and also holds an entry for the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown.

Lachares was bought at the Wildenstein Dispersal last year and having been shipped from Alain De Royer Dupré’s yard in France, is really showing signs of settling in and chases a hat-trick of wins at Cork tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Abolitionist goes into the richest Irish jumps race, the Irish Grand National, with a major chance of taking the honours.

“A couple of the horses were raced already so going racing was easier, instead of starting with babies. Now we’ll go shopping to the Land Rover Sale and start doing it that way but it was handy to be able to go racing straight away with horses that were used to it.”

Apart from the very odd day at Eoin Doyle’s yard, Holden hadn’t any practical experience of a training establishment.

“I always had my own ideas about how to do it. I don’t know what happened – I just never did go to work in a yard. But I was always hunting so I learned a lot around that.

“They all have the same routine, they do the same thing. You just train them out of their feed pot. We have that system and it’s simple. It’s the same every day. They’re on the paddocks, they’re on the walker, they’re washed out… simple things. We don’t gallop them every day; we have one working day a week.

“They’re happy and they’re healthy. The big thing for me with the barn is having good ventilation, plenty air flowing through, keeping the place infection free. Happy, healthy horses is the main thing.”

It works. Holden is the first to concede to the advantages of having some nice animals at her disposal to kick off with and being provided with state-of-the-art facilities including a six-furlong wood chip hill climb, a three-furlong wood chip circle and a three-furlong fibre/sand schooling strip. Meanwhile, she regularly refers to the benefits of being involved in a family-oriented, close-knit team operating in a serene environment. That removes much of the pressures felt by other trainers.

But eight of the 17 horses that have run under her tutelage have won at least once, and another four have accumulated prizemoney. It is clear that Coolmeen Gallops is a place of expertise. Having gotten her full licence nine days ago, Holden is now considering her next move. Keep the operation running on the current scale or go for glory, expand, and take on the increased risks and headaches that go along with that?

“To be honest I’m happy with the way I’m going at the moment. It’s easy-going. Everyone knows the craic. If something goes wrong, it’s okay. We’re so close, the little group we have. Everyone knows the routine. Maybe I’ll give it the summer and then I might think about taking on a few more.

“I’m after getting loads of phone calls looking, but I couldn’t take them anyway because I was restricted. But to be honest, I’ll keep on the way I’m going for the next few months and I’ll see.”

The general sense is one of fun. It is notable even in the ownership of the horses. The Wylies and Rooneys have gone for both spouses’ names, while Susannah and Patricia get the nod in the Ricci and Hunt households. With the Holdens, it is either Paul or Catherine, with separate colours. Paul has Ex Patriot, Catherine Abolitionist.

“You win some, you lose some” chuckles Holden. “They’d be getting on to each other over it! It’s good ould craic.”

The same applies to her relationship with her father. You wonder if, at the start at least, he might have been inclined to be looking over his young daughter’s shoulder.

“He knows when to go away from me” she laughs. “Ah no, he was cool enough. He left me off to do my own thing.”

She describes Cody as “a genius” and the duo travel with Shefflin to the sales.

“Michael Shefflin is our agent. He’s been doing it for years for us. He bought Lachares up in Goffs in September, and Look Closer and Ex Patriot at the November Sales and basically me, Ray Cody and Michael in the last year since I got the licence, we’ve headed off together. Before that, Michael was the one doing the buying. He is a great judge.”

Holden’s horses have formed a very fruitful relationship with fellow 27-year-old Rachael Blackmore, and the trainer is fulsome in her praise of the leader in the race to be champion conditional jockey.

“She’s unbelievable. She’s just riding out of her skin at the moment. I don’t know what it is about that girl but the horses just seem to run for her and jump for her and do everything right for her.”

Blackmore was on board when Ex Patriot ran such a belter on St Patrick’s Day at Cheltenham, just three days before the gelding would celebrate his fourth birthday. It didn’t go as smoothly as they would have liked though. Holden conducted an interview with ITV and the next shot provided by the broadcaster was of her charge apparently taking the opportunity to do some sight-seeing around the Cleeve Hill Mecca, having relinquished Blackmore when she quite reasonably demanded that he concentrate on the task at hand.

“I know! I just turned around and looked at the big screen. I was like ‘Oh Mother of God.’”

The son of Elusive Pimpernel didn’t get too far before being collared and reunited with his pilot. If the little foray is unlikely to have taken too much out of him, the week itself might have, particularly as he had been entered in the boutique sale on Thursday night.

“Travelling over for the first time, being entered in the sales and it was busy around the stable yard over the few days, you wonder. At home there’s nothing, just peace and quiet. There’s no noise. He was cool the whole way but it has to have taken something out of him. It’d take it out of yourself, you know!

“But I’m not using it as an excuse. He came up there despite having to go wide. There was nothing gonna beat the winner (Defi Du Seuil) anyway. He’s a superstar. They’re all good horses and he ran a great race.”

The Holdens rate him so highly that they took him back home for £200,000. He would have moved on had they received a tempting offer but they weren’t complaining.

“Whether he was sold or whether we brought him home, it was still a win-win. No-one lost out. If we’d have gotten the money for him, we’d have been able to go to the sales again and bring on a couple of more. But to still have him is great. I was on Cloud Nine bringing him home!

“He has a serious engine. We’ll have great fun with him next year. I’d say we’ll maybe go chasing. We may go to Fairyhouse or Punchestown – whether we’ll go to the two or just one of the meetings, I’m not sure yet as we don’t want to have one race too many with the potential he has. He has run a lot since we’ve gotten him.

“There’s no panic. We don’t have to go anywhere. That’s the way it works with Mam and Dad. There’s no-one saying ‘We have to go here, we have to go there.’ But he’ll be on a holiday after that and we’ll bring him back then towards the back end of the year and get going again with him.

“He is a lovely scopey horse and looked the part at the sales. He’ll be bigger and stronger again next year. He’ll love fences if we do go down that road next year. We have so many options with him.”

She has always been confident that Abolitionist would make the cut for the Easter Monday extravaganza, once he won the Leinster National at Naas the weekend before Cheltenham. Mind you, the number of times she had to field the question, made her doubt herself. She can barely believe that she will even have a runner, not to mind one that could quite conceivably bag the €275,000 first prize.

“My God, if he could get home, get around safe and sound, you’d be delighted. But going on his last two runs he won’t be too far away. He’s thriving at home, loving his work, schooling away. Rachael comes in a couple of mornings a week and does all the schooling so she’s keeping on top of it all as well.

“I was a bit concerned about the ground in the Leinster National, that he mightn’t have handled it. Obviously he’ll be better on nicer ground but I’m not so concerned about whatever comes up now that he managed to put in that performance at Naas (on soft to heavy). And he’ll love the trip.”

It would certainly represent a huge surprise if Abolitionist didn’t pick up some prizemoney, which is on offer all the way down to the 10th finisher, but regardless, Holden knows that she could not have asked for a better debut campaign.

“To have a handful of horses, a small little yard… There was only myself and Ray there for the first couple of months and then Ray’s nephew – Ray Jnr – came in after Christmas. It’s hard to believe how well it’s be going. I’m so lucky to have Ray Cody – he’s a genius. Then Michael as well with his knowledge. And Little Ray coming on… we’ve a great team, everyone gets on so well, and good horses and hopefully we’ll tip away the way it’s going.

“I am living the dream. I’m after having 13 winners, a fourth at Cheltenham and then to have a runner in the Grand National, and be in a couple of graded races. Like… that’s crazy! You couldn’t actually dream it.”

Well it is reality now.

Murphy looking to unleash the magic

Posted on 5 May, 2017 at 11:40

OISÍN MURPHY seems to have been around a long time but then he was so young when he shot to prominence. He handled that meteoric rise remarkably well, showing a maturity way beyond his years and being extremely comfortable dealing with media interest.

The Killarney native has coped just as well with the setbacks that inevitably come in racing too. He possesses a keen understanding of the various pitfalls, the nuances. He has done well but given he doesn’t turn 22 until September, has loftier goals, to ride Group 1 and Classic winners. As first jockey in Britain for Qatar Racing, it is, he insists, what is expected of him.

There is no fear of this expectation. This, after all, is a young man whose family relocated to Buttevant so that the then 14-year-old could have better access to the expert tutelage that his uncle Jim Culloty, who was based there, could provide. He spent time too at Ballydoyle under Aidan O’Brien’s eye.

So he would never rest on his laurels, think he had it made because he had a good job. Just as he learned he wasn’t God’s gift when riding a four-timer that included the Ayr Gold Cup in 2013, enjoyed a successful run in Australia with Danny O’Brien (pictured below with Murphy) or was champion apprentice the following year. So apart from his commitments to Sheikh Fahad and Andrew Balding, he rides out regularly for lower profile handlers, grafting away because you can never have too many contacts in racing, and you never know when you might need them.

A rider who particularly enjoys winning from the front, Murphy has enjoyed a good year, for the most part.

“I came back from Hong Kong the first of February and mixed it between here and Dubai” says Murphy. “I went to Dubai once a week for the Carnival and I was lucky out there, getting a lot of rides through the spring. It’s helped. A lot of the small trainers like Rod Millman and Joe Tuite have had plenty winners early doors and that kept me busy. Then Andrew’s horses are starting to come out now and the Qatar horses will be coming out as well. It can be very slow if you don’t have fellas that get going early.

“It can be a lonely old week if you’ve been riding three or four every day and you think you’ve chances and none of them win. I’d a great February, March was quiet and thankfully April’s gone well.”

That aforementioned stint in Hong Kong was his first, and though he only rode five winners in 10 weeks, Murphy enjoyed the experience.

“It’s probably the hardest place to get going I’ve ever been in. When I went to Australia I didn’t find it as hard. Obviously in Dubai, you’d go there for a job and be guaranteed rides, but in Hong Kong, everyone is freelance and Joao Moreira, Zac Purton and Nash Rawiller have ridden over 50 Group 1 winners apiece. They’ve lots of experience and are world class jockeys. Because there are only two tracks there – Sha Tin and Happy Valley – you can kind of master them. They move the rails and it makes a big difference tactically but those lads, because they’re riding there for years, know every horse in training there, so it’s pretty hard to break the mould and get going there. I was glad to ride a few winners and I’d good support. I had plenty rides and I enjoyed it. It was a great change of scenery and the locals were very good to me.”

He has always enjoyed Dubai, once riding 17 winners through the Carnival.

“I’m fortunate ‘cos I get good support off some of the local trainers there. I ride for Saeed Bin Suroor a good bit. I think I’d five Carnival winners for him and I only went there five times this year. A lot of the English trainers put me up as well. Meydan is a track I know well and I know Dubai fairly well as I spent six months there two or three years ago with Dhruba Selvaratnam.

“I just flew in and flew out this time. You can go missing off the scene too long and I was afraid if I went straight from Hong Kong to Dubai, and didn’t reacquaint myself with my contacts that I have back here, other people would be riding out for them and doing the hard work. The only way you get on is putting in the hours.

“You’re only as a good as your last winner. (Last) Saturday I had two seconds in two Group 3s, the Greenham and the John Porter Stakes, and you just have to lift your head up and go out the next day and try and ride a winner. Seconds are no good to anybody.”

This is all delivered matter-of-factly.

“When I grew up as a child it was always drilled into me how hard it was to make it as a jockey, both from my parents and grandparents. I saw Jim riding on the TV all the time and I knew he was lucky to be riding good horses and that there were other jockeys that weren’t riding good horses. So I knew that fast horses make fast jockeys and that’s very important.

“When they thought about where to send me as an apprentice, it was important that they send me somewhere I was gonna learn and was gonna get support if I was lucky enough to ride out my claim. Jim and Aidan O’Brien thought about that, everyone’s advice was taken into consideration. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, I was just sent to England, and thankfully they made the right choice by me.

“I saw apprentices at Andrew’s and other yards that were flying at one time and then a month later, they couldn’t buy a ride. And then a month later they weren’t even riding. That was always at the back of my mind. Even when I lost my claim I saw a massive difference. I went from riding for big, massive trainers… and you start thinking to yourself ‘I’m a good rider’ but as soon as you lose your claim, you know the real world.

“I was fortunate that I had people that kept bringing me back down to earth. You can get a false sense of security. That’s why on Sunday morning I was riding for Joe Tuite, yesterday morning I was riding out for Geoff Deacon. Lots of people haven’t even heard of these trainers but a good horse can come out of anywhere.”

Balding in particular made sure to protect Murphy’s claim as long as he could, and though the youngster wanted to be out there, he understands that the guvnor did the best thing for him.

“I never questioned whether he was right or wrong but it’s very hard to be at home on a Monday or Friday, knowing I could be riding every day, but then on Saturday I was going racing on five favourites. He gave me trebles at Ascot, Doncaster and York within three months of each other. He was very, very good to me. He gave me every chance to make a success of it and now he lets me ride a lot. I can’t thank him enough.

“You’ll see apprentices that ride loads of winners in smaller races and unfortunately then, once they go down to three pounds or lose their claim, that trainer who was providing him with winners goes onto the next apprentice and it becomes very difficult then. I think whether I understood it or not at the time, I definitely look back now and see that he was right.”

Murphy is extremely thankful too to the hands-off approach of Sheikh Fahad with regard to how he rides his horses. But throwing his leg across another top lot or a homebred by Frankel, Dubawi, Galileo, Sea The Stars or Invincible Spirit, he knows what must be done even if the pressure isn’t projected on him by the man spending considerable sums of money to supply the conveyances.

They are, says Murphy, very strong in the filly department. He expected Love Conquers to have run well at Sandown yesterday, believing that she could come on for the run to develop into an Oaks filly – and as a daughter of Deep Impact and Group 1 winner Love And Bubbles, she is bred to be smart. Rich Legacy may have similar aspirations as a Group 2 winner last year, with the Oaks Trial at Lingfield a likely stop. Among the older brigade, Mountain Bell will target all the Group 1 fillies’ races and Diamond Pour Moi is a Group 3 winner who might move up.

As for the colts, South Seas was disappointing at Newcastle but Murphy is keeping the faith, maintaining that while he was ridden handy last year, he stopped in front last time and could benefit from being dropped a little more. Son Of The Stars should be a black-type performer.

Meanwhile, the two-year-olds won’t be stepping up work for a while apart perhaps from the progeny by Scat Daddy and Exceed And Excel that were acquired at the recent breeze-ups.

Of the older males, Pallasator retains his enthusiasm but with so many strong stayers to choose from, Murphy might not be on board his old pal as often in the year ahead. He is very enthusiastic about resuming his acquaintance with Lightning Spear though.

“He’s been great for me. Hopefully with those other horses being a year older now, Ribchester and Minding and Galileo Gold, they won’t be getting those weight allowances and Lightning Spear will get his just reward. He’s getting better, his last run was a career best. The plan, all being well, will be to start off in the Lockinge. He goes very well fresh and hopefully he’ll get fast ground. I’m excited about him. He probably will be the highest rated horse in the country soon if Postponed doesn’t get on the winning trend again. (Postponed was retired just a matter of days after this article appeared in print) He’s a nice one to have. And Simple Verse is on the way back as well.”

A 10-day suspension for careless riding at Newcastle means he has to look on for far longer than he would like. Missing the Guineas especially will be torture.

“Hopefully they’ll go and win but it was my first opportunity to ride in those races. Hopefully they won’t be my last but you never know in this game and I wanted to grasp those opportunities with both hands.

“It was silly the way it happened because I was on a horse for Andrew in a mile-and-a-half race in Newcastle. It happened about a furlong after the start. I thought I was last and I shifted about half a horse width to my left. I heard a shout from PJ McDonald and when I looked around he was on the floor. Thankfully PJ was okay but it’s a shocking result for me and I’m gonna have to live with that now and just hopefully move on from it.”

It is part of the learning curve.

“I got a two-day ban recently recently for the stick, and it wasn’t for overuse of it, it was for force, which I never got done for before. I went home, I saw my mom and dad, I went to Jim’s and I rode out for Joseph and Aidan (O’Brien). So the 10 days, hopefully I’ll get into a few trainers in Ireland. I love all that. Whereas if I stay over here I find it very tough. Even if it’s for a day – it could be a maiden in Wolverhampton. It isn’t even about the winner, it’s that I want to learn about the winner.”

And though the younger O’Brien has had him schooling horses, he will be avoiding the obstacles in his professional capacity. With plenty opportunities when he does return, from Qatar, Balding and the army of trainers he keeps onside including, when available, Saeed Bin Suroor – “we can’t team up a lot because I’ve got different commitments but when he puts me up he tends to put me on fast ones and I just have to point and steer” – he will hopefully hit the ground running once more.

“If we’ve a horse fast enough hopefully I’ll be able to get the job done anyway and it looks like we have the ammunition. Fingers crossed.”


“Richard Hannon knows how to win a Guineas and James Doyle is a very experienced rider, and I think Barney Roy has a very strong formline from the Greenham because I think the world of Dream Castle but he just raced a bit keen. I think later on in the year you might see Dream Castle reversing the form. Churchill for me has the strongest form from last year. He’s going to improve on pedigree. I saw him a few weeks ago and he looks a million dollars. There’s no better man to train a horse for a race like that. He should take a lot of beating.

“The French horse, Al Wukair won a very strong trial and I think the French have an advantage in that their trials were a little bit earlier this year and they can freshen up their horses again before the Guineas. Andre Fabre has a very strong hand of three-year-olds. I don’t think he’d run one in the English Guineas if he didn’t think he’d be in the first three.

“But for me, if I had a horse to ride in the race, I’d love to be on Churchill.”


“I wouldn’t look past Poet’s Vanity. She was just ready to start off the last day (when third in the Nell Gwyn). She’s a bigger, more impressive filly than most of them that will line up, she looks like a colt. She’d have needed the run, she’s a Group winner from last year and has already beaten most of the fillies that’ll be up against her. Andrew has won a fillies’ Classic before, he’s won an Oaks and he knows how to train them.

“Aidan has Hydrangea and Rhododendron in there. Charlie Appleby’s good filly Wuheida is out. It’ll be interesting to see how the French line up. I don’t know if they’re as strong in the fillies’ division when you consider that Wuheida won the fillies’ two-year-old race at Chantilly last year. So I wouldn’t have swapped Poet’s Vanity for anything in the race. She’s probably around 33/1 and she could run a big race.”

This article appeared in The Irish Field on Saturday, April 29

"The hardest part was just not playing" - Niamh McCarthy

Posted on 23 April, 2017 at 6:00

THERE was a time, even as she had barely entered her teens, when it seemed inevitable that the Niamh McCarthy would play for Cork.

“I knew if I didn’t try to come back that I would always wonder what could have happened” (Photo by Inpho)

There was a time too, when it appeared certain that the prodigy would never pick up a hurley again. Never bend the sliotar to her will in competitive action. Never experience the split-second euphoria of rippling the opposition net.

That McCarthy is lining out for the Leesiders in tomorrow’s Littlewoods Ireland Camogie Leagues Division 1 Final is a testament to her bravery and character, to her love of playing and of scoring goals.

More than anything though, it provides evidence of an intangible that probably has the most value in her estimation, given that she has spent the best part of five years in the solitary pursuit of regaining her fitness: sharing a collective purpose with like-minded people, with friends, who swap gossip and make each other laugh and then do all they can for one another on the pitch, going through happy and sad times, together.

She almost walked away but McCarthy just missed all that too much. Had she given in to the anxiety about what further torture might lay ahead and hung up the boots for good, she knew she would be haunted by the question that torments us all at one time or another.

What if?


IT WAS late February in 2011. McCarthy was 14 but blitzing teams at her own grade wasn’t what marked her out. It was that the tyro had brought her goal-scoring to the highest level, playing a key role as Inniscarra reached the All-Ireland Senior Club Final.

She had always played basketball too. It was her mother’s sporting passion and the she enjoyed it as much as camogie. It was during a game on court that she suffered her first cruciate knee ligament injury, a fortnight before she was scheduled to be let loose on the wide spaces of Croke Park.

The thought of missing an All-Ireland was dreadful but it wasn’t one game itself that stood out in the ensuing months, and indeed years.

“All I did was play sport. Every evening would be either two trainings or one training. Every single day. I loved it. So it was terrible but I thought I’d get my knee right and be out a year. But it wasn’t like that at all.”

The healing process was torturously slow. The following year, it was thought that she might have torn the cruciate again but another operation revealed this not to be the case. She was out for more than two years before she finally got going again.

After two months, McCarthy was starting to feel good about her game again. She was just turning 17 when disaster struck and the cruciate went in her other knee. The rehab went smoothly this time but the psychological scars would prove more problematic.

“I knew if I didn’t try to come back that I would always wonder what could have happened” says McCarthy. “I was an up-and-coming player when I was 14 but I never got the chance to see what might happen.

“When you’re sporty, and you’re 15 or 16 and can’t play on the team with all your friends, it’s hard. When you’re on a team, you’re all in it together. The recovery is something you have to do alone. No-one else is going to do it for you.

“But the hardest was just not playing. You’re on Facebook and people are talking about games…”

Fear gripped her though. She had her last operation mid-way through fifth year and by the time she had completed her Leaving Cert, she still wasn’t sure if she could put herself back in the mixer.

Her recollection of the first day back is vivid.

“I was terrified to be honest. I wanted to play and I wanted to be part of the team but I just didn’t want to have to go through any of that again. I hadn’t played since I was 14, apart from when I was back for two months before my other knee went.

“I’m delighted now. De-lighted to be back playing camogie with my club, with UCC and with Cork.

“I never played underage for Cork. I never got the chance apart from U14. It was something I always wanted to do. When I was brought into the panel, there were a lot of girls my age but I didn’t know any of them because I had never played underage with Cork.”

They only knew her as “that poor girl” she laughs. It was her form with UCC in the Ashbourne Cup last year and then as Inniscarra ended the Milford monopoly in the county championship that convinced Paudie Murray she was worthy of the step up, and she has carried that through the League.

Having clubmate Rena Buckley around proved a tremendous comfort and still does.

“It’s been easier for me to transition in with girls I didn’t know, knowing that Rena is there. When I was playing with Inniscarra first, I was the baby and she wouldn’t have been one of the older girls then but she’d have been good like that, talking to you.

“And she looks after my knee as well, she’s a physio and she understands that there are times when maybe I can’t train. She’s also good to speak to you before a match. It’s just nice to know she’s there.”

She has done well, scoring goals as she had always done. But sometimes her expectations get the better of her.

“I put pressure on myself. I expect to be like when I was playing U14 and U16, to be able to win every ball but you’re not because you’re playing against the top players. I also feel like I want to make up for the time I missed.

“But I’m still learning. I missed out five years; I’m only back playing a year and a half of camogie. Even through the League, I have learned so much from playing against top players and playing alongside top players.”

Given that she lost out on such two or three complete phases of development, it is quite remarkable that McCarthy is flourishing so quickly. It is only reasonable to assume that she will improve further but the learning curve is steep.

Cork beat Kilkenny by a point at the beginning of the month but it was an illuminating experience. Meanwhile, the culture within the squad cultivated by the likes of Buckley, Gemma O’Connor, Aoife Murray, Ashling Thompson other long-serving members is one that appeals.

“They want to win so much. Everyone has bought into the way we’re playing. Training is going good, there are new players there and everyone is pushing each other forward. When the Championship comes, even after the League Final, there’ll be some fight for places. You have to perform in training. Anyone could start. That makes training very good.

“The physicality that Kilkenny brought, I don’t think any other team that we had played against had brought it. It was way more physical than any game I had played before.

“So I’m looking forward to (tomorrow). It’s exciting. The fact it’s on before the hurling final, that it’s televised. It’s a big game. Everyone is looking forward to it. Training is going well and we’ll give it our best shot.”


THE 20-year-old pharmacy student prepares to return to the library. She hesitates, thinking about the conversation that has unfolded.

“I don’t want it to sound like a sob story. It’s over, I got through it.”

She would hate, she adds, to come across as soft.

Her journey to date suggests she is anything but.

This article was written and published in a variety of media on Saturday, May 22 before the Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League Division 1 final the following day, in which Kilkenny beat Cork.

Non-Trier Rule for punters rather than horses, says Power

Posted on 21 April, 2017 at 10:25

IRISH Grand National-winning jockey Robbie Power says that the updated Non-Trier Rule means that jockeys will be riding for punters and stewards rather than horses and their connections, and admits that riders will have to be harder than they would like and risk the futures of young horses, to avoid falling foul of the regulation.

Robbie Power and Our Duke are led in last Monday after their devastating victory in the Boylesports Grand National at Fairyhouse (Photo by Caroline Norris)

Aidan O’Brien, Wayne Lordan, Johnny Murtagh and Andrew Lynch have been among the trainers and jockeys who have been punished under the updated Rule 212 since its implementation on January 20.

Irish Jockeys’ Association secretary Andrew Coonan has suggested that the rule be reviewed after the Galway Festival while Irish Racehorse Trainers’ Association chief executive Michael Grassick has echoed Coonan’s concerns about its interpretation.

Representatives of both organisations are scheduled to meet to discuss a joint approach on the matter.

Power is the hottest jockey in racing right now. He recorded three winners at the Cheltenham Festival last month, including the Gold Cup on St Patrick’s Day on board Sizing John.

The 35-year-old Meath pilot was subsequently appointed as retained rider to Sizing John’s owners Ann and Alan Potts and the following week bagged three Grade 1 prizes among a tally of four victories that left him with leading rider honours at the conclusion of the Aintree Festival.

On Monday, he steered Our Duke to one of the most impressive triumphs in the history of the Irish Grand National.

He is concerned about the impact the rules might have on horses but concedes that jockeys will have to adapt accordingly ifcurrent interpretations are persisted with.

“You’ll probably have to be a bit more severe on horses than before but I think once you realise that, it’s not going to make any difference to jockeys” says Power.

“Maybe you’ll have to give a horse a harder race than you would ideally like to if a horse is having a first run after a long lay-off, or a first run of a season.

“If that’s the way they want you to ride horses, that’s the way you have to do it.”

The concern for jockeys and trainers is that the current black-and-white interpretation is for the benefit of the betting public and does not take a horse’s long-term future into account.

Clearly a stronger line was needed from the regulatory body on the practice of horses not racing on their merits to improve handicap marks and betting odds.

Power’s worries surround the fate of the younger horse in particularly, who cannot be fully educated on racing, when never having raced or had one run. He argues that driving them too hard, or doing likewise to a horse having its first run after a lengthy absence, could be detrimental to their futures.

However, if there is no alteration to the rule or its interpretation, jockeys will have to take that risk that the horse might not develop for owners and trainers, to avoid suspensions and fines, he reasons.

“When you go to school you don’t go straight into sixth class. You start off at junior infants. It’s asking a horse to jump straight into the deep end. It’s impossible to have a horse know everything about racing when they haven’t had a run.

“It’s a rule that basically means you’re riding for the punter and the horse side of things has been thrown out the window a little bit.

“Racing is all about the horses. If a horse has a bad experience on his first day on a racecourse he might never turn out to be the horse that you thought he could be. If you have to beat up a four-year-old in a bumper or maiden hurdle first-time out just for the stewards or the punters, it’s not gonna stand the horse in good stead going forward.

“But it is what it is so we’ll just have to get used it.”

Dunphy relishing combination of work and play

Posted on 21 April, 2017 at 7:35

IT WAS the second minute of injury time when Aisling Dunphy entered the fray. Kilkenny were four points clear of Cork, their supporters in celebration mode. At last, the hurt of 22 years and six final defeats would be consigned to the past. The Cats would be All-Ireland champions once more.

A 17-year-old Dunphy had also been introduced in the 2009 final, when Ann Downey’s youthful side found Cork much too strong, and was an established member of the team that failed to get over the line in the 2013 and 2014 deciders against Galway and Cork again respectively.

Downey’s return to the fold prompted a number of tweaks that led to a famous League and Championship double but Dunphy’s demotion wasn’t one of them.

The St Brigid’s attacker actually withdrew from the panel for the duration of theLeague and didn’t return until her exams were concluded. So to see any game time at Croke Park just a few months later was as much as she could wish for. That it was finally on a winning day a dream come true.

Having gotten her degree in biological science in Galway, Dunphy switched to UCD to do graduate medicine. Like moving from minor to senior, it was a huge step-up and she opted to put camogie on the back-burner until first year was out of the way.

Having become adjusted to the requirements, she opted to return full-time to Kilkenny this season. It was what needed to be done to be more than a bit-part player and the decision has reaped its rewards so far.

There were exams a couple of weeks ago, a few more to come but with their WIT backgrounds, Downey, Conor Phelan and Paddy Mullally have always been holistic in their approach and understanding in the pressures faced by students.

Fortunately, given the age profile of the panel, there are quite a few of them based in Dublin and they share lifts up and down to training. Last year, Grace Walsh spoke of the craic to be had singing Justin Bieber songs. If the soundtrack isn’t quite Forever FM on Peter Kay’s Car Share, the exchanges can be as funny as the popular TV show at times.

“She actually travels with me” laughs Dunphy when Walsh’s remarks are mentioned. “She’s my entertainment up and down. She’s good fun. There’s a few of us and it’s great. It shortens the trip. It would be tough on your own and it definitely makes it easier to have the chat up and down.

“You actually look forward to getting a break from college, getting out of that scene for a little while. It’s busy but once you’re enjoying your camogie, it’s worth it.”

Being organised is vital to making the dual demands work.

“I probably have my days when I’m not as organised as I should be but generally I’m pretty good. It’s the biggest part of it, planning meals and training to get in things like recovery sessions. You’re always thinking a few days ahead but it’s fine. When you’re organised, things tend to fall into place, and when you’re not, sometimes they don’t!

“Medicine is intense and camogie is as well but I suppose you learn how to deal with pressure from both. But as I said, you’re enjoying both as well. I feel like a lot of people will always ask how you do it, but honestly, I don’t feel it as being crazy stressful and I don’t think anybody else doing something similar would either.”

“They beat us on our home ground (three) weeks ago and they’re flying it. It’s going to be all to play for” (Photos by Inpho)

It seems an age since the Ballycallan camog got the call from Downey as a 16-year-old at the beginning of 2009 but she only turns 25 next week and has plenty to offer. It was brilliant to finally win an All-Ireland but Dunphy spent the summer playing catch up. Not this year though.

“I had played in three All-Irelands that we lost in. Because it was my first year in medicine, I didn’t really go back with Kilkenny until I was finished in May and missed the League. I didn’t plan it. I just kind of went with it because I was quite busy in January.

“The girls were flying it and I was delighted to just get on at the end. When you miss time like that, you’re going to be on the back foot and we have such a strong panel, which we showed in the final. I was delighted to go back in but it was nice this year getting in early and getting a good go at it and so far it’s going okay.”

Dunphy was a key component as Kilkenny upped their levels in the second half to defeat Galway in the Littlewoods Ireland League Division 1 semi-final. They did so with almost half of the team that started the All-Ireland final either unavailable or on the bench. The competition for places is fierce and the chance to play a high-flying Cork team in the decider live on TG4 as part of a big double-header with the hurling final is invaluable.

“You can never get enough experience of big days; playing in front of crowds when the pressure comes on and dealing with it. So it’s good that we’re getting to semi-finals and finals and the newer players are getting game time against the stronger teams like Galway and Cork for sure.

“We’re going to be absolutely up against it. We beat Cork in last year’s All-Ireland but they’re clearly after regrouping and are on form at the moment. They beat us on our home ground (three) weeks ago and they’re flying it. It’s going to be all to play for.”

"I had him in a slatted house in Ballintubber and when the lads came to get him he was eating a round bale with a rake of cattle"

Posted on 14 April, 2017 at 11:25

IT IS another of those quintessential national hunt stories that captures the very essence of jump racing.

“Katie has done a great job with him; you have to hand it to her... She's with him every day; she knows the horse, the horse knows her and that has to be a help” (Photos: Caroline Norris)

It starts with an inexpensive purchase that shows early signs of potential before a number of gut-wrenching setbacks leading to 52 months on the sidelines look like rendering that potential unrealised. Cue the patience and perseverance of connections, the character of the horse himself and the added ingredient of a female jockey closing in on history.

It doesn’t end there. Others had small but significant roles. People like John Thomas McNamara, who is now in the middle of a huge battle after fracturing two vertebrae in a fall at Cheltenham.

People like Gerry Kyne from Kiltrogue Stud and his late son, Jamie. The 18-year-old was killed along with fellow apprentice jockey, Jan Wilson in a fire caused by an arson attack in England less than four years ago.

No shortage of sadness and poignancy then, but largely, this is a tale filled with joy and fortitude.

Pat Glynn was browsing through none other than The Irish Field when he spotted an ad placed by Enfield breeder, John Costigan. Glynn travelled east to Kildare and purchased a foal for €7,800.

They Kynes did the breaking and Glynn always recalls Jamie’s words to him.

“That’s a horse that’ll go places for you.”

Glynn got in touch with five friends from Dunmore and offered them shares in the prospect. Pat Gleeson, Robbie Byrne, brothers Donal and Niall Collins and John Harte were in.

Pat and his brother Jimmy were talking to Ruby Walsh at Roscommon races one day and conversation turned to their own horse that had been coming along nicely.

“Send him to the oul’ fella” said Ruby. And so, Seabass was bound for Ted Walsh’s yard in Kill.

Nobody forgets the people that are intrinsic to the story and despite the bad times, the Gunners Syndicate members know that their wildest dreams have already been exceeded.

If Seabass is wins the Aintree Grand National, making Katie Walsh the first female jockey to win the great race, the movie executives will be knocking each other over to make the film.

While Glynn was the driving force, buying the foal, getting his mates involved, naming the horse after a favourite meal (it fitted with the maritime theme required for a son of Turtle Island too) and naming the syndicate after his beloved Arsenal, Harte’s story is just as interesting.

A complete neophyte in racing terms when approached by Glynn (although his father had owned show jumpers when John was young), he is an ardent convert now, transfixed by the game, in awe of the people and horses that bulwark it.

He and his wife Mary paid a visit to Ted Walsh’s yard in Kill recently. As a butcher, he had promised Ted’s wife Helen a leg of lamb and came bearing a few more gifts while he was at it.

“I said to Mary ‘I can’t go meeting that woman in Aintree and no leg of lamb’. It was nice to talk to them because on race day it’s all go” says Harte.

Helen, in turn, doled out a hearty breakfast and drove them to the Curragh, where Katie was working Seabass. After that, they just moseyed around the Walsh stables, engrossed by the care and attention to detail that goes into looking after every inmate. Harte knows how lucky they have been that the Glynns ran into Ruby.

“We couldn’t ask for better. We’d never question them. Anything they do, 100%. It’s ‘whatever you think Ted’. They think the world of the horse and are always minding him.”

The Hartes revelled in their day trip to Kildare and were struck by how much a family affair it was. As Helen told them, the Walsh clan don’t know anything else.

Just like John and his trade. His father was a butcher. Where Ruby, Katie, Ted jnr and Jennifer rushed home from school to ride horses or do chores around the yard, Harte went straight for the slaughter-house behind his home.

At 18, he set up on his own in Dunmore and it is in almost 20 years there that the friendships were forged with Glynn, Gleeson, the Collins brothers and Byrne.

As business ground almost to a halt three years ago, he decided to take a chance and move to Castlerea. That has worked a treat, with the Roscommon folk welcoming the Galwegian with open arms and crucially, embracing his product.

The recent controversy involving horse meat has only served to enhance the role of the local butcher, but given Harte’s connection with racing now, there is much banter between proprietor and patrons of late.

He is the type of individual that likes a laugh and is “game for anything”. So he barely hesitated when Glynn came calling.

“I never thought we’d end up where we were and today, I still don’t think it. It’s a dream. I have a DVD of all the races and with Aintree, I still can’t believe what happened.”

Seabass was second on debut at Belharbour point-to-point, when in an interesting twist of fate, he was ridden by Ross O’Sullivan, who is now Katie Walsh’s boyfriend. He followed up by skating in under McNamara’s guidance “on a scuttery old day” at Horse & Jockey.

“That was the day we thought he might be a good one” recalls Harte. “It’s sad to think about JT now but we all wish him well.”

Injury lay-offs of 18 months, 13 months and 21 months followed though. Given that Seabass had walked away unscathed from an altercation with a car in his youth, you might have expected him to have a stronger constitution. His legs are a weakness though and even now, require constant attention.

Harte admits that thoughts of throwing his hat at it entered his mind at times when it looked like there was no hope.

“I’m not denying it. I said ‘what will we do now?’ We thought at once stage he was finished, headed for the knacker’s yard. There’s no point saying any different. There were two years there where there was nothing happening.

“The legs will always be a problem and we’re delighted every time he comes back from racing.”

Since resuming the latest phase of his career by winning at Ballinaboola point-to-points in November 2011, the trajectory has climbed steeply.

Three handicaps and a Grade 2 chase were bagged, making it seven consecutive victories before finishing third in the Grand National last year, having led jumping the last before tiring.

Last term was a voyage of discovery. This season, they knew what they had so Seabass has been campaigned more steadily. He finished second in a 2m hurdle at Fairyhouse at the beginning of February before returning to the Meath track less than three weeks later to be third in the Bobbyjo Chase.

In all, with eight wins and a career that has garnered approximately €260,000 in prize money to date, the ten-year-old is almost like a member of the family now.

Harte clearly loves Seabass. He has brought so much happiness but he’s a trifle temperamental too. Definitely an individual.

“He’s a wiry little yoke. I had him in a slatted house in Ballintubber and when the lads came to get him he was eating a round bale with a rake of cattle. The same buck, he wouldn’t be too pushed.

“He’s a fiery fella. Ted Walsh says that when you don’t bring his feed in time, he kicks the wall. In the early days Ted had an awful time with him, he was always throwing jockeys off his back. He was a ‘tempery’ buckeen. He likes to get his own way.

“I watch the DVD of the Grand National once a week, if not more, and the tears still leave my eye. I watched it last week and I got emotional about it. I don’t know if it’s because it’s coming so near to the time again.”

Seabass and Katie Walsh jump the last on the way to winning the Leopardstown Chase in January, prior to finishing third in the Aintree Grand National

The thought of winning a Grand National is almost too much for Harte to get his head around. For ages, talking about even running in the race seemed insane.

“Ted always had it in his head I reckon but he doesn’t say much. He did say ‘I think we have a contender here’ but we thought he was out of his mind. Amongst ourselves, we were thinking we were out of our league.

“But we always had confidence in Ted, that he knew what he was doing. When he won at Naas Ted said ‘pack your bags lads, we’re off to Aintree’. Even then we thought he was mad!

“Katie has done a great job with him; you have to hand it to her. She’s on him again now and I always felt it wouldn’t be fair to take the ride away from her. I’m not taking from Ruby obviously! But she’s with him every day; she knows the horse, the horse knows her and that has to be a help.

As preparations go, they couldn’t be happier. Given Seabass’ chequered history, you are always on tenterhooks about getting there fit and healthy. As the trainer said in typically colourful style after the Naas win last year, “he has been on the scrap heap three times already”.

Harte is torn between just wanting Seabass and Katie to come home safe, and the possibility that they might fly to the moon.

“He has more weight but he’s lightly-raced. If he doesn’t fall he has a great chance. He made a few mistakes last year and Katie said he had nothing left at the end.

“Last year, we went over on the Friday after doing a day’s work and we’ll do the same this year. I watched it, as I always do, on the television because you can’t see a race properly otherwise, especially one like that.

“I had to turn away a few times. I couldn’t believe what was happening. When you have only 15 finishers out of 40, and you see your own fella in third, it’s pretty unbelievable. It was great for Katie and great for the Walshs.

“All I hope is he stays safe and gets around. And that the jockey gets home safe. That’s all I want. I don’t care where he finishes after that. It would be lovely to be around the first five but it’s very important to get around safe.

“He’s in good form. Ruby reckoned after his first race in Fairyhouse that he’s a better horse than last year. So he’ll hopefully have a chance.”

This article appeared in The Irish Field in April 2013. Sadly, John Thomas and Seabass are no longer with us but like Jamie Kyne, they left a positive imprint on many lives prior to their premature deaths. Much more happily, unless you were hoping to get it on with either of them, Katie and Ross have gotten married.

Sligo without key players for potential Big Apple banana skin

Posted on 14 April, 2017 at 5:00

SLIGO manager Niall Carew must plan without a number of key players when his side make the journey to New York for their preliminary round Connacht SFC tie at Gaelic Park on May 7.

Niall Murphy, Kevin McDonald, Gerard O’Kelly Lynch and Luke Nicholson will all be absent due to injury and exam commitments.

Murphy suffered a Grade 2 tear of his hamstring and will be out of action for at least six weeks.

Meanwhile, McDonald, O’Kelly Lynch and U21 star Nicholson miss out due to exams, with the squad unable to be back in Ireland in time.

Indeed Murphy and Cian Breheny will sit examinations on Tuesday but Breheny is committed to lining out for Sligo, as was Murphy before his injury setback.

“It’s very disappointing to be without such important players” says Carew. “Niall’s injury is one of those things that can’t be legislated for, but if the game had been fixed for the Bank Holiday weekend, the lads would not have had to deal with exams.

“Kevin and Gerard are key members of our defence, while Luke was full-back with the U21s and has been doing very well. Cian will be travelling with us but it will be hard for him with exams to do almost as soon as we land.

“It’s a pity because it was something that could have been avoided but with the game on Sunday night Irish time, there is absolutely no way around it and we just have to get on with it now.”

Carew would like to have been making the trip with a full squad for a game that has the potential to be a banana skin, given that Roscommon only escaped unscathed by the skin of their teeth last year.

That one-point defeat by a team that had appeared in a Division 1 League semi-final just a matter of weeks earlier has buoyed the GAA fraternity in the Big Apple. They have invested heavily in their preparations for the Sligo match by bringing Donegal over this week and scheduling games for yesterday and tomorrow.