“When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I see over the bed post is a blue and gold string. So you can imagine what it’s like in my house, can’t you?”
A cackle of laughter follows from Kieran Purcell, who revels in what is now known as banter but in his day and mine was simply ‘the craic’. And there is plenty craic on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border.
It starts at home though as Josephine – “unfortunately she’s from the other county” – has her colours nailed literally to the mast, despite being a long-time resident just on the other side of what she regards enemy territory, in Windgap.
Hurling defines your identity in these parts.
“When people ask me where am I from, I always say Kilkenny thanks be to God,” Purcell declares, with another laugh.
Many readers will know Kieran Purcell as a man who played in five consecutive All-Ireland senior hurling finals (1971-75), emerging triumphant in ’72, ’74 and ‘75.
Sited at full-forward in an era when you were entitled to danger money just for standing on the edge of the opposition square under a high ball, his influence was such that he received an All-Star three years in succession, from 1973-75.
The first of these arrived despite appendicitis confining him to a substitute’s contribution in the ’73 decider – which many Kilkenny people say was the difference between victory and defeat by Limerick.
He did lose a final to Tipperary but because it was his first, he still looks back on it fondly. Getting to that stage was not something he had ever thought would be possible as a youngster growing up in Windgap.
Now, as he approaches his 74th birthday, he is still making them pay as a racehorse trainer, You Can’t Catch Me bagging his eighth race and first over fences, jockey JJ Slevin sporting very familiar black and amber stripes at Thurles last Saturday.
“I like taking money out of Tipperary, so I do. I love it. It gives me great pleasure,” says a grinning Purcell.
No wonder You Can’t Catch Me is a family favourite, having also taken the spoils on five occasions in Clonmel.
Fun is a big part of proceedings for Purcell, who is relatively new to training, only taking a full licence out when retiring from farming.
Purcell always had a passion for racing and had a horse in training with close friend Joe Crowley, father of pioneering daughters Annemarie and Frances, and whose yard on Carriganog Hill is now home to his grandson, Joseph O’Brien’s flourishing empire.
“To me, he was the greatest trainer of all time. He went up to the sale and bought cheap horses and he beat them all with those cheap horses. He was 90 recently. Anything I know about horses, I learned from him.” Purcell rented a yard and used Crowley’s gallops for a spell as he decided to turn his hand to training on a small scale.
“It was a retirement thing I suppose… and I suppose when I was hurling, you miss the kick and the excitement of winning when it’s finished. It’s the next best thing, isn’t it?” He was in his 60s when he took out his full licence and enjoyed a purple patch at the beginning of the decade. Smokey Joe Joe, Burrenbridge Lodge and Paddy Pub were all multiple winners, all sold by him to the Big Five Syndicate. Paddy Pub won the Leinster National. Burrenbridge Lodge garnered a Grade 2 juvenile hurdle at Fairyhouse and was hugely promising before getting injured.
“It always happens to the best ones, doesn’t it?” The numbers have dropped in the past six or seven years. At present, he has 12 horses, seven of which he owns himself and the other five in which he would have some share of.
“It’s a small operation, two lads riding out for me and the two boys, Pat Cody and Joe Byrne are with me for years. They’re the mainstay of the place. It’s unbelievably competitive in racing now. The small trainer has no hope really. There’d be no expensive horse in the yard. The dearest horse in the yard probably cost 10 grand.” How does he make it pay then?
“That’s the question! Generally point-to-pointing. If I win a point-to-point I’ll sell and that keeps it ticking over. If I was training horses alone I wouldn’t make a living out of it but I’ve a couple of nice horses in the yard thank God and we’ve done well in the point-to-points over the years.
“I have a hell of a fine horse named Banner Rebel who won his point-to-point first time out as a four-year-old at Dromahane at the end of last year. I went to the sales in Doncaster with him in January, I didn’t sell. A bad sale I was at unfortunately, a terrible sale. It was just hard luck.
“He’s ready to run now but he wants a good cut in the ground and we’re bound to get rain yet. I’ll go for a winners-of-one or a winners-of-two and if he can win that, we’ll hopefully get a good sale then. I think he’s a serious horse. I’d say he’s the best horse ever I had.” You Can’t Catch Me might not be in that bracket but most yards in Ireland would give anything to have a horse as prolific.
“We bred him ourself and he was a small foal. When he was so small, I gave him to the grandchild, Emer Dunphy. We were never going to sell him but her sister (Alanna) had a horse in training with me as well so I said ‘twud be grand for the little one to have one. He’s 10 now, she’s 16 now but she named the horse herself. Because she was only six when he was a foal, he was registered in her mother Elaine’s name. It’s great to have a horse like that in the yard.” Being an underdog as a trainer matches his hurling career and he can still scarcely believe how events unfolded.
“I never dreamt of winning three All-Irelands. I think I’m the only one from the club ever won an All-Ireland with the county.” He reckons the Cats are back in contention once more and unsurprisingly is in awe of his former teammate Brian Cody, who has overseen so many wonderful successes.
“He’s a brilliant manager, a brilliant man to keep them together, brilliant motivator. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the country like him.” He attends matches and training at every opportunity and has always maintained that link with the hurling. Former Clare rival, Johnny Callanan once had a horse in training with him.
Now though, plans will have to be made for You Can’t Catch Me – a winner on the flat, in a bumper, over hurdles and fences.
““It depends on the rating he’ll get. We’ll go for something similar or a novice, though he’s only another month as a novice. We might go back hurdling. What we want is two and a half miles, good ground and the quicker the better for him.
“We’re going well at the minute, especially in the point-to-points and I’ve a few grand horses. Win a couple of point-to-points every year, sell your horse and keep the thing ticking over. I’m a retired farmer, so it’s a pastime for me.” And if it still involves getting the better of “the other county”, all the better indeed.