RACING THROUGH IRELAND

It started out as a golf trip to one of the Meccas of the sport – Ireland. Places like Ballybunion, Lahinch and Waterville annually make all the lists of “best ofs” when it comes to the world’s greatest golf courses. When I agreed to fill in for a buddy who had an unresolvable conflict, I was delighted to learn that the week in question was chosen for a variety of reasons including “they are racing at Listowel.” Maybe, they threw that in for my benefit. Who knows?

So, the question goes like this: How was the trip to Ireland? The short answer is five amazing golf courses, two days of horse racing that rivaled anything we have here, and (just to liven it up a notch), the town where we were staying won the Irish equivalent of our Super Bowl on day three of the trip. Needless to say, the locals were excited. They didn’t have a parade, they had two. Believe it or not, they both ended at a pub. Hard to believe, I know.

We flew from Atlanta to Shannon arriving at 9:00 a.m. We quickly shook off our few hours of sleep, rounded up the bags, stumbled through customs and somehow ended up in rental Ford mini-van complete with automatic transmission and air conditioning. I drove. I’m not sure why. I guess I’m the oldest.

If you have been to Ireland, you know the roads are small, the cars are small, the truck and buses are huge and everyone drives literally like bats out of hell. You can’t move over when the “lorry” threatens to give you a header because there is a bank or a wall resting on the six inch shoulder (If it’s that big…). To my companions credit there was minimal second guessing in the area of automotive operations. Perhaps they were too terrified to speak. Every query was answered with “Don’t make me kill you.” That one seemed to quiet them down.

After our second attempt to exit the airport – I threatened to turn right the wrong way into the roundabout within the first 10 minutes just to wake everybody up – we found the road to Kildare and our first stop – The Irish National Stud. Management Assistant Sinead Hyland had agreed to give us a tour if we could show up by noon. Seems as Sinead’s boss, John Clark, the Chief Executive, was over at the Curragh for the Goffs Million later that day as the Stud was sponsoring the Group 2 Blandford Stakes also on the card.

The National Stud is lovely. It is working stud farm with a lovely Japanese Garden incorporated in it. They stand 11 stallion with stud fees ranging from approximately $45,000 to $6,500. The stud also features a museum, and the facility attracts 130,000 tourist each year at $12.50 per person admission. The stud bred and sold My Typhoon who won the Virginia Oaks at Colonial (or maybe it was the All Along) prior to winning the Grade 1 Diana at Saratoga this August. They office staff was impressed that we knew exactly who she was when we saw her photo in the reception area.

The walk about the Irish Stud was a great way to unwind after a trans-Atlantic flight and a 2.5 hour harrowing-wrong-side-of-the-road car ride. Luckily, the Curragh was but a 10 minute drive away, and even more luckily the village of Kildare was between us and them.

Of course, we had to stop and sample a local pub. The place we chose (the name now escapes me, but I’m sure it had a Guiness sign outside) was small, but it had two large flat screen televisions. One was on about soccer and rugby and what not, while the other was showing race recaps from around Ireland the day before. There were only two chaps in the place and one of them was studying the race card. Home, away from home! We had a quick pint, made three new friends, snapped a couple of pictures and proceeded to the racecourse which turned out to be every single bit of four minutes away.

The Goffs Million Day is the second biggest day of racing after the Irish Derby at the Curragh. It features two million dollar seven furlong straight sprints for two-year-olds cataloged in the Goffs Sale. As it were, all the preliminary races were also straight sprints and one had to drive past the starting gate on the way into the track. Needless to say, we stopped. They were loading the horses for the first race and we stood next to the gate right on the rail. It was a brilliant perspective for my first race in Ireland. They are going the wrong way so I might as well watch it from behind. It was perfect and incredibly scenic and peaceful.

The Irish refer to the race by its post time as opposed as its number on the card. Of course, the program says Race 1, but the most prominent number in the upper left hand corner of the page is the time of the race. The locals refer to the first race as “the 2:30.”

I had press credentials at the gate, and the Curragh was kind enough to give us three complimentary admissions for my friends. They did this without so much of a question which, of course, again makes it different than here in the states. Once in, I was very impressed. The facility is nothing special, although I do really like the bar stools which are attached to the paddock fence. Security was minimal – I walked right into the paddock and onto the race course. Of course, toting around a big camera always helps at such events.

The crowd wasn’t huge, but it was a Friday. They were dressed up and very focused on the races and on having a good time. It was the first time I’d seen the bookie system in action, and it was just fascinating to watch and listen to them. In retrospect, the whole scene is rather hard to describe, but it was very clear very quickly that horse racing is ingrained in the culture of these people.

We didn’t stay for the big races as we had a four hour drive in front of us to reach our headquarters in Tralee. This was rather painful…A racetrack, two big races, lots of Murphys and Guiness…and a four hour drive of peril. Hmmm…better go before temptation gets the best of me…

Needless, to say we made it, and we watched the replays the next day. — gp

Next week, part 2 – Tralee and beyond.