‘It was a feather in the cap to get him over because he was iconic’

Last Monday’s Irish Grand National evoked plenty of memories for Roy Craigie, many of them from long before he enjoyed an 11-year stint as Fairyhouse general manager up to 1999.

Unfortunately an ankle problem that has him requiring crutches meant he could not take up an invite to lunch this year, so he missed out for the first time since 1957 and only the second since his first visit as a 10-year-old.

Making it the other 71 renewals is quite a record.

In those early days, Craigie was part of a pilgrimage from the capital, when Easter Monday at Fairyhouse was known as the Dubs’ day out.

His father always had a few hunters and point-to-pointers and the family travelled by pony and cart from their home in Finglas every year for the National.

Craigie had an uncle, Alex, who rode as an amateur and won the prestigious Ward Union Hunt Cup three times. He won it himself a couple of times later on.

“At that time, hunting and hunters chases were big things,” he explains.

“I won the Joseph O’Reilly in Fairyhouse one year too. Georgie Weld trained the winner. I rode with Billy McLernon and a little with Bunny Cox. He would be about 10 times better than I ever was though. It was very competitive but they were great guys to ride with and we had great craic.

I did a lot of hunting. I was master of the Ward Union for about 12 years and I was chairman for a number of years as well. I spent a lot of time hunting with them and the Fingal Harriers.

He was studying commerce in Trinity when he rode his first winner and went into the family business at Merville Dairies once the degree was pocketed. He would progress to be general manager before retiring in 1980 and joining the Irish Turf Club (now Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board).

He was appointed manager of Fairyhouse in 1988. In true Irish fashion, the posting was initially for an interim period but lasted much longer.

Two years after taking charge, one of the highlights of the history of the venue occurred with the arrival of the 1989 Gold Cup winner and all-round equine hero, Desert Orchid to participate in the Irish Grand National. It was a testament to Craigie’s ambition and skills of negotiation.

“Midge Burridge was the owner and I knew a good friend of hers, not very well, but I rang her and said, ‘Any chance you could talk to Midge to see if there was any chance she could bring over Desert Orchid?’, and it came from there.

“One thing led to another and I found them very pleasant people to deal with. She was keen to bring him over to Ireland. She was obviously a bit concerned he’d get top weight, which he did do, but it was great to get him over.

“He won the race but hit the last fence an all-merciful clatter, which was all the better in as much that he didn’t fall and he still won. It was a feather in the cap to get him over because he was iconic. He was a people’s horse, being a grey.

At that time you’d always get half a dozen runners from the UK. Irish Distillers were sponsoring the National at the time. They were great sponsors. We had a guy working for us in the UK to meet trainers. I went over a couple of times myself. They came over more so then, than they do now.

Extra security had to be employed for Dessie, Craigie wisely preparing for the groupie-like intensity to his following. He wasn’t wrong, as people strained to pluck hair from his tail as he made his way back to the parade ring.

In 1993, the public flocked to Fairyhouse again after the shenanigans of the Aintree National, which ended up being void after half the field ran despite it being a false start.

“There was a huge crowd that day and I’d say a quarter of them came to see the start! The late Stephen Quirke was the starter and I remember saying to him that Easter Monday, ‘Are you nervous?’ ‘I’m not in the slightest bit’ he says, ‘I could be starting down in Sligo or Tramore, it wouldn’t make any difference.’ He was very laidback about it.”

What might not be so well known about his time in Fairyhouse was that he was involved in discussions to build a Formula 1 track there.

“It was Dermot Weld who rang me up one day and asked if we’d be interested. He was friendly with some guy who was very much into motor racing in the UK. The man that built the Tallaght Shopping Centre was involved in it too.

“We went a fair way on it, they had an idea how they’d lay it out. They were talking to Aintree at the same time too I think. It didn’t materialise anyway and it’s just as well it didn’t I think.”

More disappointing was the failure to build a golf course and particularly a hotel, which he feels would have been a significant addition and revenue-earner. But he couldn’t get unilateral agreement and approval. However, he did oversee the construction of a new stand.

Craigie remains actively involved in racing as a steward, though less regularly than before as he winds down.

What’s his take on the new whip rules introduced by the IHRB whereby stewards will immediately hold an inquiry if a jockey strikes his or her horse more than eight times?

“Personally, I’m not in favour of having a specific number but at the same time, the world is changing. The one thing is if a horse is struck nine times, it doesn’t mean that a rider is going to be suspended and that’s very important, that the stewards retain the right to decide if it’s excessive in the circumstances.

“I think in this day and age it probably had to come ‘cos we’d be the odd ones out if something didn’t come in. I hope that it works well and the lads will adhere to it as much as possible. I’m sure they will.”

He was impressed with Monday’s renewal of the Irish National.

“Willie is some man” he says of winning trainer Willie Mullins. “First, second, third and fifth. It was a great race.”

He enjoyed that local trainer Jim Dreaper had a winner on the card too with Sizing Rome.

Dreaper was victorious in the Irish National four times.

That is an enviable record — remember that Mullins was achieving the feat for the first time — but Dreapers’ father, Tom was triumphant on 10 occasions. Two of the winning horses were owned by the aforementioned Alex Craigie — Last Link in 1963 and Splash in 1965.

It was great to be there at that time. He was very lucky with horses. He had a winner in Cheltenham as well.

When he thinks of the greatest horse he ever saw, it is a triple Gold Cup winner and the Irish Grand National victor that was the meat in the Craigie sandwich in 1964 that comes quickly to mind.

“It’s very hard to pass Arkle. He was something else really. I know it’s back in the 1960s but my God he was a wonderful horse, no doubt about it. I knew the breeders, the Bakers, fairly well and it was great for them. He was incredible.”

Which given all that Roy Craigie has seen, is saying something indeed.

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