Sulky Racing: Time to find a legal solution?

We need to find a safe legal space for sulky racing, says documentary maker Geoff Power, as these horses can have a positive impact on their racers — both Travellers and settled people

STRUGGLING to find the turn for the halting site on Childers Road, I pull over at a bus stop and ring Timmy.

“Well…?” he queries.

“I’m lost, Timmy. I’m opposite the Topaz station — beside the Aldi.” “No, no, you’ve gone too far,” he says. “Come back down the road. You’ll go through two — no three — roundabouts. I’ll come out to meet you. I’ll be on the grassy mound.”

I turn the old Mini around and chug back up Childers Road.

I met Timmy and his family for the first time two months previously. Martin Danneels, the director of the documentary that we were making, visited the halting site with me in Limerick to hear about their involvement in harness racing.

On that occasion, I had Timmy sign a release form, which would allow us to use the interview we had recorded. Since then, during the editing process, it was apparent that other members of the family, including a number of minors, would also feature in the final cut. As producer, I had to return to Limerick to get the consent of the parents.

The documentary is Ireland’s Sulky Racers, by Midas Productions, and it forms part of the RTÉ2 Reality Bites series.

A sulky is a lightweight, single-seater, two-wheeled cart used in harness racing. On a road or track, horses will compete as trotters or pacers, depending on the animal’s gait, and races are conducted with hobbles, or ‘free-legged’.

Sulky road racing is illegal in Ireland. Nevertheless, it has grown enormously over the past 10 years; the breeding of horses has become very sophisticated — huge sums of money are involved in bringing top stallions over here from the US, UK, and Australia.

Most people contend it is exclusive to Travellers, but Ireland’s Sulky Racers disproves that. About half of those involved in road racing are from a settled background. Their preference for trotting on back roads and dual carriageways often lands them in trouble. Horse owners and drivers have also faced a public backlash following accusations of animal mistreatment and cruelty.

Those who take sulky racing seriously will admit that they are ‘no saints’. They acknowledge that there are bad apples in the sport, but argue that this applies to all pastimes.

Our contributors ascribe the emergence of sulky racing to their forebears, who were in the habit of hurrying to the fruit market to collect the next load. After all, a century ago every family had at least one horse, used either for work, transport or play.

When finally I arrive at the halting site, Timmy’s family surrounds me. The children are initially distracted by my Mini, bemused by its size. But the priority is to share a glimpse of the rough-cut edits I have on my phone — one of the true benefits of smartphone technology!

I show the clip once. I show it twice. Other members of the family arrive, and they gather around. We watch the footage six or seven times in a horse shed built from concrete blocks, behind the mobile homes and caravans that comprise many of the housing units. We are six men, five children, and a skewbald named ‘Pinky No. 1’; everyone is trying to get a clear view.

Each time it is seen, there are murmurs of approval or acts of showmanship. In the clip, one young lad, Tom, displays a beaming smile. He receives a good-natured slagging from the rest.

Some of the necessary release forms are signed, but the final seal of approval comes after I am invited to meet Timmy’s mother. She is seated in a corner of the caravan with two other women. They are playing cards. We shake hands. Other women are standing by, holding children. “Sit down for a hand,” Timmy urges. “Put some coins in the pot.” I take out my wallet and show him what money I have. “That’s it,” I say. “Exactly €1.90, and I need that to pay the return toll.” “Hah! They wouldn’t let you open with that!” he says.

The game stops temporarily as the women share my phone. I stand and wait until it has been seen three times by different groups. Finally, they nod and return to their game. I leave Limerick relieved. The clip that I needed approval for forms a lovely piece in the final documentary.

What is clear from Ireland’s Sulky Racers is the participants’ evident passion for horses.

What these men hope is that their sport would one day be legal in Ireland, that they would be allowed to race on a disused road or otherwise, with proper structures in place. A legal day of racing already exists in the North, in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh.

  • Ireland’s Sulky Racers airs on RTÉ2 this Thursday, 15th October, at 9.30pm. #Sulkyracers


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