Twenty years ago today, Curraheen Park opened its doors for the first time. Even during those days of financial largesse, it was a huge boost to the sport in the Cork area. The old and much-loved Western Road track, creaking at the seams, gave way to a brand spanking new facility for all the family to enjoy.
On April 8, 2000, just seven days after Elma Roche sent out Eglinton Prince, a dog owned by a group of workers from An Post, to wrap up 64 years of racing at the Western Road venue, trainer John Duggan and owner Pat Muldoon heralded a new era by taking the opening race at Curraheen Park.
The track was a great success from the outset, and the facilities were such that it satisfied what people expected as an entertainment space, and the results were evident for many years. Noel Holland was racing manager at the time of the changeover and he remembers it vividly.
“By the time they were almost ready to open Curraheen Park, we were just hoping nothing would go wrong at the Western Road, that we would get through to the final night without anything breaking down,” said Holland.
“It was great to get involved in the new track because we had a big say into the circuit. It was a great thing to look forward to, but also a time of trepidation because we just didn’t know how things were going to work out.
“Because of that we couldn’t get caterers to sign a contract, but we eventually agreed percentages with the Kinsley Hotel (Kudos) and when they came in, they were a huge part of our success.
“The amount of racing we could host also increased. In the Western Road we might have 26 races in a week but in Curraheen we had a minimum of 30. And we had the quality of dogs too. In fairness to John Duggan and Paul Hennessy, they were brilliant right from the start.
“The first year of the Laurels in Curraheen, it was won by a schoolmate of mine, Bryan Murphy, with Barefoot Ridge. For me, that was a great night and a great start to the new era.
“The night Sonic Flight won the Laurels, in 2001, was the biggest night I ever remember at the track. If you wanted to go from the judges’ box to the kennel area that night, you had to go out the main gate and around the outside.
“I think four and a half thousand people paid on the gate that night. If I remember rightly, Sonic Flight was fourth in the first round, but there were four to qualify. He was trained by Dolores Ruth and was another brilliant dog, and a big draw to the tack. Tyrur Ted was the same when he won the Laurels in 2005.
“I remember in 2007 we had 37 benefit nights,” Holland added. “That year the company made more than €360,000 profit, the Tote was €5.7m, which gave us another €726,000. That meant we brought in over a million that year, and a lot of that was because of those benefit nights. We had loads of regulars, running their benefit nights year after year, with great success for themselves and for us, and the GAA clubs who did had their nights there were always brilliant to deal with.
“Every Saturday night we would turnover about €60,000 on the Tote: €45,000 of that would be on our meetings, and €15,000 from betting into Shelbourne. The most important thing was that you put on quality racing to attract people to the track. They were great times, though we knew it couldn’t last forever. Times are tough and things very different now.”
Different they may be but Holland’s assertion that “greyhound people are the salt of the earth” was never more apparent than in 2019 when a team led by Jimmy Barry Murphy and Tony Winters stepped in and up to secure the immediate future of the Laurels, which was in real trouble of fading away tamely when sponsors dropped out.
The greyhound folk of the country, not just those in Cork and the surrounding area, responded in spectacular but predictably generous fashion to not just ensure the 2019 running but also the next two. And they were rewarded with one of the most special Laurels finals of the Curraheen era.
Local runner Rockybay Foley, trained by Kieran Lynch and owned by Chrissie Slyne, had been successful in the 2018 renewal and was fancied to defend his crown. His presence in the final attracted a huge crowd and they were not to be disappointed.
After looking in trouble as the field tightened up going down the back, the reigning champion battled back be right there in the mix as three dogs crossed the line almost in unison. The fact it took a couple of moments to call the result of the photo heightened the excitement when Foley’s number was called.
It was a tremendous success in a difficult time for greyhound racing and, while businesses and individuals will have to reassess when this coronavirus pandemic is finally under control, we won’t have to look back too far to know that Curraheen Park can be a place of great joy.
It’s a shame it hasn’t been able to welcome people through the turnstiles to celebrate this anniversary, but it is the people who attend that can make it special again – and that can happen at any time.