When I was in Ascot on Saturday watching the rugby and how disappointing it was after all the hype which surrounded it and the team, it got me thinking and comparing it with our own sport.
As a small country we’re always looking for big things and there’s no doubt that the lads that went to Japan tried their best, but last week showed how far off the pace they are.
Then I started thinking about how often something similar happens in soccer. We may or may not get a result against Denmark in three weeks’ time, but even if we do get the result we need, what are we going to achieve after that? What can we realistically hope for if we get to the Euros?
And we’re sending athletes to the Olympics, but what can we hope for there? They can achieve personal best but, realistically, that’s all they can hope to achieve. How many medallists have we?
That got me thinking: What are we really good at?
We have some world-class golfers and have had for a while. We have the likes of Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, and before that we had the likes of Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke, and before that again we had Christy O’Connor Jr. They put Ireland on a global stage.
Obviously GAA, where most of our best athletes are, is only national, not international. We’ve had sporadic great athletes: Eamonn Coghlan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Ronnie Delany. There aren’t that many.
And looking at Olympic level, we’ve had a few boxers: Michael Carruth, Wayne McCullough, Kenny Egan, Katie Taylor while Kellie Harrington could be a contender in Toyko next year, as could gymnast Rhys McClenaghan.
We had Barry McGuigan and Steve Collins in the boxing professional ranks while, in rowing, the O’Donovan brothers — Gary and Paul — won silver at the last Olympics. But there weren’t that many.
Yet, when you look at racing, wherever we have gone in the world we have achieved huge success.
We’ve won three Melbourne Cups, a Japan Cup, a leg of the Triple Crown, loads of Breeders’ Cup races, Prix de l’Arcs, and many, many more races across the globe.
If you go back through the generations you have Vincent O’Brien, who probably remodelled it all for the Irish horse. And then there was what Paddy Mullins, Dan Moore, and Paddy Prendergast achieved.
Frank Dunne won a Japan Cup, Dermot Weld opened the gateway to Australia, and he also won the Belmont Stakes. Aidan O’Brien has followed suit, winning races all over the world, but that was all opened up by Vincent O’Brien, Paddy Mullins, Dan Moore, Paddy Prendergast.
They all travelled with horses back in the 60s, 70s, 80s and paved the way for all the success we have had since.
I can write about those guys but if you roll on through the generations you have Jim Bolger, John Oxx, Willie Mullins, Jessica Harrington and Gordon Elliott who have all followed in their footsteps, and with great success.
And there were also jockeys like Pat Eddery, Kieren Fallon, Richard Hughes, Oisín Murphy — four champions on the Flat — and then you had the likes of AP McCoy, Richard Dunwoody, Norman Williamson, to name but a few, over jumps
Our own championship has never been won by anybody only an Irishman.
And look around the world at the success of the success of Irish jockeys in the likes of France, Hong Kong, Australia, America, and so on. And look at what Dermot Weld achieved winning the Melbourne Cup twice, and Joseph O’Brien once.
Irish racing people, when they travel abroad, are respected like the All Blacks are when they travel abroad. We may have world-class athletes sporadically in other sports, but they’re not constantly at the top of the tree globally like we are in horse racing.
We have a dressage team, a show jumping team and an eventing team qualified for the Olympics and if there was a horse racing event at the Olympics, God knows how many medals we would have.
Internationally, we are recognised at the top level. We are not just competing, not an ‘also ran’ who may get to the top at some stage. We are constantly at the top and that’s something we should be very proud of.
There’s only one American horse which has ever come here and won a Classic: Fourstars Allstar. Yet our horses go to America regularly and take big prizes. No Australian horses have come and run in Ireland, yet we got to Australia and compete, and win big prizes.
It might be a niche sport, but it’s one sport where Ireland can say ‘yes, we are the best’. When we do travel abroad, the local trainers use Irish jockeys, and that tells its own tale. We have been grateful to import foreign rugby players, but other nations want to import Irish jockeys.
And then there’s the influence which Coolmore, an Irish company, has globally. Look at the effect of the Irish breed around the world, the stallions we have, which are being shuttled around the world. It’s incredible.