Liam Mackey: Horse racing and me - A doomed affair from the get-go

The news RTÉ is to significantly expand its coverage of horse racing did not exactly spark scenes of wild celebration in this household.
Liam Mackey: Horse racing and me - A doomed affair from the get-go
Liam Mackey: "Why I was never bitten by the equine bug is a small mystery, since the old man was quite the devotee of the turf, regularly to be found at the table with his head stuck in the form book.

The news RTÉ is to significantly expand its coverage of horse racing did not exactly spark scenes of wild celebration in this household.

Of course, it’s a tonic to see any stirrings of sporting life in these arid times but even though we’ve been on starvation rations for what already feels like an eternity, somehow I think I’ll still be able to resist the temptation to tune into the nags and will, instead, reserve my full commitment to the armchair vigil for the resumption of the Premier League.

(Yes, indeed, seems it won’t be very long now before we can once again thrill to the sweet music of that glorious complaint: “There’s nothing but bloody football on the telly these days”).

Why I was never bitten by the equine bug is a small mystery, since the old man was quite the devotee of the turf, regularly to be found at the table with his head stuck in the form book.

But for his football-obsessed son, it was always a case of two legs good, four legs just not interested, really.

Which, sheer desperation aside, might explain why, on a very slow day at the Irish Press Radio Review Desk back in 1994, I had no qualms about adhering to The First Law Of Journalism — ‘Never Allow Your Complete And Utter Ignorance Of A Subject To Get In The Way Of Filing A Column’ — by lashing out a left-handed screed about the sheer inanity, from the point of view of the unconverted, of horse racing commentary on the wireless, an experience which, devoid of spectacle, made the circular, monotonous recitation of all those daft names sound even more dreary to these untutored ears.

A couple of days later, I was at my Sunday Press football correspondent’s desk, putting together Jack Charlton’s latest words of wisdom, as I recall, when the phone rang and a stern voice said: “My name is Jim Bolger and I train race horses.”

There followed a full and frank exchange of views — “You don’t know much about our game, do you?” he said.

“Ah, you spotted that,” said I — which culminated in a most generous offer: In an attempt to make me see the gross error of my ways, Gentleman Jim was extending an invitation to myself and a friend to be his guests at Leopardstown on Hennessey Gold Cup Day.

Pausing merely to doff my cap in the general direction of The Second Law Of Journalism — ‘Never Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth’ — we were, as they say, off.

My cunning plan for the day was to see if “having an interest” would alter my relationship with horse racing in any meaningful way. But first, as in all carefully constructed scientific experiments, I needed “a control” — a race I would watch strictly in the role of neutral observer.

It was not, I have to say, a life-changing experience. Viewed through a forest of check caps and at such a distance that, at their furthest point from the stand, the horses gelled into a single centipede-like organism, I still found it hard to see what all the fuss was about. And, no, I’m not talking about my lack of binoculars.

But, oh, what a difference a fiver made.

For the next race, I placed that princely sum on the nose of The Beruki, an outsider I’d been assured by those in the know would at least give me a decent run for my money.

He did far more than that. After starting as if shot out of a cannon, he opened up a huge lead and was still in front, albeit with the rest of the field now rapidly closing in, as he turned for the home stretch.

As for me, I was now wholly unrecognisable to myself.

From someone with no knowledge and even less interest in horse racing, I had been transformed, in the space of a couple of minutes, into a demented being: face contorted, pulse racing, jumping up and down, roaring at the top of my voice, ‘G’wan The Beruki. G’wan! G’WAN!!”

But unlike Samuel Beckett, The Beruki couldn’t go on: Visibly knackered by his prodigious effort, he came to the last fence and, unable to muster a jump, simply crashed right through it and crumpled to the ground.

Imbued with the zeal of the newly converted, I was just about to let loose a volley of robust abuse when I felt a steadying hand on my shoulder and the Liffey-watered voice of the man standing behind me solemnly intoned: “Dat poor animal is browen bread”.

Sadly, he spoke the literal truth. The Beruki had broken his neck in the fall.

But, admittedly at a terrible cost to the poor horse and his connections, I had at least come fleetingly close to some kind of understanding of the transcendent appeal of the gee-gees.

For if ever there was a sport in which it’s not the taking part but the winning that counts, it surely has to be the horse racing.

And when you’re winning — or, as in my case, when you think you’re about to win — well, yes, it’s just about the most fine and dandy sport in the world.

But when you’re not, or even more to the point, when you have no skin in the game at all, well, thanks all the same, but I reckon I’ll still find more to engage me in that fabled “no-score bore in Inchicore”.

My account of that bittersweet day at the races duly appeared across two pages of the Irish Press, complete with photographs of myself looking like the rank eejit I was in the company of all those with a proper feel for the sport including not only the great Jim Bolger but, as the pictorial evidence reminds me, a certain Charles J Haughey who had his own horse, Flashing Steel, in action that day.

Still, on revisiting the archives this week, I also find that I was able to conclude the article on a somewhat upbeat note.

“One other thing,” I wrote. “In the course of this assignment I believe I may have formulated A New Law Of Journalism: Slag Off Something About Which You Know Nothing And Wait To Be Converted.

“So, then, Sumo Wrestling. What a load of crap that is, eh? Japanese Tourist Board, please note.” The offence, and the offer, still stands.

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