Ruby Walsh: Thurles the unlikely hero in time of great uncertainty

Ruby Walsh: Thurles the unlikely hero in time of great uncertainty

I doubt anyone in the Moloney family or anyone in any way attached to Thurles racecourse would ever have thought the eyes of the racing world would turn solely on them on a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, but they will.

And they will be because of a brave decision made by HRI, with the backing of IRHB, to continue to race for as long as possible in these unique, scary, and strange times.

The decision to race was one that most certainly was not taken lightly.

Let’s face it, when a time of midday is given for a meeting to discuss the future of anything, we all assume the discussion has taken place in advance of the meeting and a decision is imminent. But, on Wednesday last, it was almost 4pm before any statement was realised.

There will be a lot eyes and attention on Thurles this afternoon when ITV4 broadcasts five races live from the venue but there will be no interviews, no on-course reaction, and no on-course build-up.

Social distancing will be adhered to. Racecourses have vast outdoor areas and you don’t actually need that many people to run a race meeting when you only open the track and nothing else.

No bars, Tote, restaurants, or coffee shops. No bookmakers, spectators, owners, or car park staff. Just stable staff, jockeys, officials, some trainers, the required course staff and the necessary medical staff.

Extra rooms are available for riders to keep their distances and once your day’s work is complete you will be required to go home. These are industry meetings, not for gambling companies or corporate entertainment, these are for the industry that is horse racing.

No doubt some will think this decision is reckless and greedy, some will think horse racing is so far removed from reality that what else could be excepted. But everyone is entitled to their opinion and I most certainly am not here to try and explain why HRI have made their decision.

It makes no material difference to me nowadays if they race for the next two weeks or not, but it makes a hell of a difference to an awful lot of people.

We have all watched this virus wipe out thousands of jobs and put unheard-of pressure on our economy which is hopefully only a short-term thing. Either way your health is your wealth.

The HSE guidelines on how we are all going to survive this are pretty clear and straightforward, so when you read them and adhere to them, you can see how our shops are still open, you can see how offices are ticking over with limited staff and work-from-home guidelines.

But you can also see why an industry like ours, with a shop window that is the sport of horse racing, is trying its best to keep moving. Horses will always need to be cared for. Like all animals, you can’t simply close the gate and tell them to mind themselves, stay healthy, and we’ll see you in a month.

The shop window you may or may not watch at Thurles today is only the front for a massive rural employer underneath.

From stable staff — roughly one to every four horses — to farriers, vets and horse box drivers, to stud grooms and breeders, to feed companies, bedding suppliers and the farmers providing hay, the knock-on effect of not having the shop open is huge.

You then add in the various layers with which horses pass through from birth to the racetrack — the people who have them as foals before selling them as yearlings to the next layer of traders who keep them and teach them before they move them on again to trainers or point to point handlers — and tiers within this industry start to become clear.

Each and every sector in society is under pressure. Sport, like tourism and social venues, have been brought to a standstill but there are sectors that will simply have to keep moving in some shape or form.

Horse racing is not rolling along like it can, it is merely ticking over.

The extra guidelines that HRI and the IHRB have in place to make this as safe as possible for those few that will be there and to make sure there is no extra danger to society is merely an effort to keep the wheel turning for all those people we never see.

As soon as the government requires the Turf Club doctors or the Order of Malta ambulances that racing uses, this sport will stop. The dreamer in me hopes they won’t be needed, not for racing’s sake but for all of us.

Meanwhile, the action at Thurles gets underway at 1:40pm and in the first race, Politesse, for Lorna Fowler, could collect at the expense of the Joseph O’Brien-trained Arthurian Flame.

Karl Der Grosse, who runs in the second race, is the first of Willie Mullins’ runners and he reappears after quite a long lay-off. He won a Tramore maiden hurdle quite well but then fell off the face of the earth for whatever reason.

He seems to be in much better form and going the right direction again, but he may need his first run back.

The 2:40 is a handicap hurdle and I don’t really have a strong opinion, but the 3:10 is the feature of the day, the Grade Three Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase, and Willie runs Cut The Mustard. She was no match for Sizing Pottsie in Navan on her last start and I don’t think the extra couple of furlongs will suit her.

If there is a danger to Sizing Pottsie, I think it could be Zero Ten. Emmet Mullins’ horse fell at Punchestown on his latest start, but I think he’s a fair horse and might be worth chancing against the likely favourite.

The 3:40 is the handicap chase and Western Sea, trained by my brother-in-law, Ross O’Sullivan, always runs a sound race. He may not have too much in hand and a market move for At Your Ease would be worth following.

The next is the beginners’ chase, and Dortmund Park was, at one time, a high-class novice hurdler and Max Dynamite a high-class flat horse. They’re the two best horses in the race, but they’re hard to separate.

In the bumper, Ultra Viers, trained by Tom Taaffe, ran well on its only outing to date and might be worth siding with.

Downpatrick, which is on tomorrow, is definitely more Gordon Elliott-land than Willie Mullins-land. The Very Man looks to be Gordon’s pick in the WKD Hurdle and that’ll do me, while Tony Martin’s Odds Or Evens looks interesting in the following race.

Willie has a runner, Ifyoucatchmenow, in the Randox Ulster National, but she carries a penalty for winning at Punchestown as well as not having Conor McNamara’s 5lb claim as Paul Townend takes over.

Cheb De Kerviniou has a chance but Gavin Cromwell’s horses are in incredible form and Jimmil would be one you’d have to respect. The other handicap chase is a poor contest, but in the maiden hunters’ chase Jamie Codd would have had the choice of plenty of horses and he went with Jim Dreaper’s Complete Sizing.

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