Thank you Dessie, and to you Neville for such an evening and to Eva and Stan for all that Moyglare represent. I feel very honoured to be standing before you.
I have had a wonderful time in racing but – oh my – it could have been so much better.
Let me take you back to the York Spring Meeting of 1973, to Tommy Stack’s old and draughty farm house where I used to stay when doing the telly and where he lived during that great riding career which climaxed in Red Rum’s third Grand National in 1977.
Also staying during what turned out to be a long and carousing evening was a tall, pleasant, dark haired but quite argumentative young Irishman from Tipperary. Next day Tommy explained to me that this guy was really good at the whole bloodstock thing and that if I could stump up, I think it was £800, we could go into business together and you never knew where it might lead.
800 quid was a lot of money, I had a young daughter, the youth was probably just another wannabee stud man and so I thanked Tommy but asked him to remind me what the guy was called. The name was John Magnier.
Aidan – I could have been one of “The Lads.”
It gets worse. Six years later I was involved in setting up the Gay Future film Murphy’s Stroke and the director, Frank Cvanovich asked me down to Jim Old’s place in Dorset which was doubling up as Edward O’Grady’s yard at Ballynonty, the yard where Gay Future had actually been trained.
Frank introduced me to the actors, took me to watch some filming and at dinner that night asked me how it went. I told him that I thought that Niall Tobin who played the mastermind Tony Murphy, was terrific, but that the young kid having his first big role as Edward O’Grady seemed very nervous and unlikely. “I don’t think he’s the business,” was my considered verdict.
Frank was firm but gentle. “Trust me,” he said, “he looks great on camera.” The guy was called Pierce Brosnan.
So I am delighted that despite this calamitous spurning of Irish talent, your people and in particular your horseman have been unbelievably welcoming to me over what is now nearly 60 years of crossing the sea between us.
In this region I have ridden out with Tom Dreaper even before the reign of Arkle and with John Oxx in the days of Sea The Stars. Further west I have sampled the delights of being mounted at Ballydoyle and the extreme dangers of following Enda Bolger over the banks in Limerick.
In the media I have worked alongside the professor that was Tony Sweeney and the legend that was Michael O’Hehir, the highlight of which was being stuck with Michael and Peter O’Sullevan on the top of the Curragh stand while the 1987 Irish Derby crowd was evacuated for a bomb scare. “An even 100 it’s a hoax,” said Peter. “If we live you pay. If we get blown to bits I owe you both a century.”
Of course poor Michael has been long gathered but Peter O’Sullevan has just celebrated his 97th Christmas in good spirits albeit in hospital in London.
Ireland has given many gifts to the spoken word but few better than these, the two finest voices that ever have or ever will call a horse race.
So it is as a lifelong friend of Ireland and of Irish racing that I offer a couple of thoughts for the future. They come with a little experience, a lot of good wishes and with no promise of easy solutions.
For while there have been huge improvements in the time I have been around – racecourses, training facilities, veterinary support, safety features, jockeys fitness and of course Dublin airport, are unrecognizable compared to my day. While the game is massively improved it is also hugely diminished in its impact on the public and in the press and TV.
This is actually more pronounced in England where up until the mid 30s the Derby was the biggest sporting event of the year. Where when I started with the Sunday Times in 1974 every paper had one and usually two writing correspondents. Now racing does not even get a mention amongst the 8 principal sports listed across the top of the BBC website and most papers confine their racing to just grids of cards and tips.
As racing slips there is a tendency to blame, and to think that all would be well if you could conjure up the media players from the past. The truth is not that racing is doing things worse, it is that other sports have powered past. When I started, live football was confined to the FA Cup and to England matches, Rugby to the Five Nations, Golf to the British Open, Cricket to the Home Tests, and Formula One to the British Grand Prix. With sponsorship and Sky Sports all of these are a presence for ten or even twelve months of the year and, crucially, all of them offer betting opportunities for their fans.
Of course racing has wilted under this onslaught but it needs to be confident in what it does, celebrate it, explain it – but don’t try to make it what it is not.
For in all the blather we tend to forget that a day’s racing is no more and no less than a series of athletic contests on to which are gridded a betting game. Around these days is built a leisure industry offering a non-partisan, multi generation, unisex day out and underneath it, in Ireland, lies the most successful bloodstock industry since the Darley Arabian was shipped west from Aleppo.
However different these parts may be, it should be crashingly obvious that they are better working together than apart and it never ceases to amaze me how often, in Ireland as well as in Britain, the opposite is the case. People prefer to fight amongst themselves and rail away about how much better it would be if we could be like France, or Japan or Australia or Hong Kong, than unite in the common cause of attracting more people into this activity.
And by attracting I mean most of all making it interesting. Of course we have to improve facilities but the most important thing is to make sure that the game and the athletes at the centre of it all is interesting. Racing and betting have to be fun but they need to be based on something more than the minutiae of punting.
Because we are not France, Australia or Hong Kong and certainly when I last checked, nothing like Japan where they bet millions of yen a day on motorboat racing We are what we are, and in Ireland it is both your success and your challenge that racing is valued more highly here than in any other country on the planet, a greater percentage of your population are still interested.
And just because of that, and because of the closeness of all the players and indeed the government, you have the chance of setting new standards in the relationship between racing’s professionals and its public – particularly the younger, more modern, more technically savvy public.
Here are three simple, easy to effect idea
So let 2015 be the year when in Ireland:
- Every result includes the time of the race not just the names, prices and distances.
- The height and weight of horses are freely given and discussed to give a better understanding of the athletes we are dealing with.
- The new technology opportunities of more and more miniature head cameras on jockeys are fully embraced to offer what can be the finest replays in any sport.
Times are always relevant. They are no more and no less than one part of the jigsaw of what actually happened out on the track. But in 2015 it is nothing but obtuse to put up the winning distance and the starting price and ignore the time.
Heights and Weights:
They are interesting. It is interesting that the Australian super mare Black Caviar had a racing weight of 580 kilos, 35 kilos heavier than the massive Denman and no less than 135 kilos heavier than the 2003 Arc winner Dalakhani. It is fascinating to hear Willie Mullins say that Faugheen put on nearly 100 kilos during the summer. I remember trainer Peter Beaumont telling me the trouble he had with the 1993 Gold Cup winner Jodami who put on over 100 kilos in the summer and it then took all winter to get him fit.
New technology means that the size and cost of these are coming down all the time. A replay of a horse coming through a big field properly explained by a jockey does more for the basic understanding of what racing involves than a thousand pundits waffling at each other.
These are three comparatively little things but they are part of a much bigger theme – that unless you can get a real focus on the riders and the athletes beneath them racing is reduced to merely a betting game. And as a betting game it is much less accessible than whether Munster will beat Leinster or the firt goal scorer for Arsenal against Manchester United.
So let’s try and make the horses interesting. Never forget that the thoroughbred racehorse is the fastest weight-carrying creature the world has ever seen. It has been our two islands’ finest gift to the animal kingdom. It is the inspiration and, on good days, the income of all of us gathered here. And it remains the noblest of all the assets of the Irish State.
So in thanking you for your welcome let me close with an ode to the thoroughbred written by the famous American owner Paul Mellon whose great grandfather left Co Tyrone for Pittsburgh in the very early 1800s, who himself was the first man to lead in the winners of both the Epsom and the Kentucky Derby and who had the rare distinction of being one of the richest men in the world whilst always remaining one of the nicest.
The poem is about the end of the journey. And as I shall be getting there sooner than most of you, the words will do for me too.
When my final race is run
And win or lose, the setting sun
Tells me it’s time to quit the track
I will gracefully hang up my tack
And thank the lord the life I’ve led
Was always near the thoroughbred.
I’ve had my share of spills and knocks
Pursuing the elusive fox,
And heard the stirring cry of hounds
From Melton to the Sussex Downs
Each spring I ride a hundred miles
My tail bright red, my face all smiles .
And I have seen the thrilling pace
Of many a cutthroat steeplechase
And watched with heart and breath suspended
Until many a classic race be ended,
For those high days can end in pain
Or in a bottle of Champagne.
So, if the downward course be steep
To where smoke and flames and devils leap,
I’ll hope I’m on a Hellish steed
Running his heart out with no need
For voice or spurs or flailing whip
To guarantee he’ll get the trip
But if, at about the sixteenth pole
God should have mercy on my soul
I hope he’ll raise me to the clouds
Above the grandstand and the clouds
And there I’ll take my ease and wait
Behind the pearly starting gate
In my first interview of course
I’ll ask St Peter for a horse
He’ll lead me down the heavenly sheds
Past rows and rows of Thoroughbreds
And say, “Since you’ve escaped Old Nick..
They’re on the house, just take your pick.
So when old Gabriel’s golden horn
Echoes from cloud to cloud each morn
And “it is post time” rings out clear…
I’ll be ready with my gear
My horse and I will not be late
(Though I’ll be slightly overweight).
Though some may think, and I’ll agree
That only God can make a tree,
Before God thought of trees, it’s said
His mind was on the thoroughbred.