This year, 2005, Clonmel celebrated its 80th birthday, Keen Laddie its first winner of what was then a combined event, for dogs and bitches (separation came five years later).
This is the centenary year for the Irish Cup, first won by Peerless de Wet in 1905; it will be held this weekend tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, at Limerick Racecourse, in Patrickswell.
In some eyes, it is still the premier event in coursing. As one of the organisers behind the Irish Cup, Damien Delaney is probably biased; he has his own way of explaining the difference. Fittingly, given that most of those involved in coursing are also staunch GAA people, he chooses a GAA analogy: “The Derby and the Oaks, in Clonmel, are like the All-Ireland U-21 championships, both of them restricted to pups; the Irish Cup is the Senior All-Ireland, no restrictions.”
Not that Damien would knock Clonmel, you understand; after all, it was there, through their mutual interest in dogs, that the Roscommon native met his wife, Marion.
It’s just that of late, the coursing spotlight seems to shine almost exclusively on the National Meeting with the result that the Irish Cup is being left behind.
“We do feel that way,” he admits, “but the Irish Coursing Club (who run Clonmel) own the Sporting Press, can print what they like. They do give us some coverage, but we’re up against it, this week especially, because the Waterloo Cup in Britain is also on, the last running of it, due to the recent legislation passed in Britain. That gets huge coverage.
“What’s being overlooked, however, is that over the three days here, we have a total purse of €141,000, €109,000 for the Irish Cup itself, huge money. The winner of the Irish Cup will get €63,500, which is more than the total of the Derby and Oaks winners combined, along with a very nice gold cup that JP (Mcmanus) has given.”
Dave O’Connell, secretary of the Regional Coursing Club and another of those volunteers working hard to keep the Irish Cup to the forefront, takes a slightly more diplomatic view of how their event compares to Clonmel: “I would never knock Clonmel, it’s a brilliant atmosphere, but we have a different kind of dog, a different kind of atmosphere. Here, it’s mainly all-aged dogs, whereas Clonmel is just for pups, except for the Stakes on the final day.
“At the moment, the way the Irish Cup is divided is that you have 40 all-age dogs, many of those proven champions, and 24 pups. It’s also open to bitches, but you only have the very odd one, they’d be minding themselves for the bitch stake, a very valuable stake as well, €10,000 for the winner. Traditionally, only dogs win the Irish Cup; off-hand, I can’t ever remember a bitch winner.”
Ah yes, traditionally. When an event reaches its centenary, tradition becomes a byword. Up to the year 2000 coursing people didn’t speak of the Irish Cup, they spoke of Clounanna. “Clounanna,” says Dave, going almost misty-eyed at the mention, “is just outside Adare, in the middle of the Earl of Dunraven’s estate, and it was a unique place. There was a big drain in the middle of the field, they had bridges across it that the hares would know, they’d have been trained to cross it, but the dogs didn’t. That ditch changed the direction of many a course; sometimes the dogs would fall into the trench, that would finish them. There was a bitch there one year, Rossa Rose, she had won the Oaks in Clonmel, had a great chance of pulling off what would have been a very unusual victory, but she fell into the trench, nearly got drowned.
“It would be tidal there, comes up the Maigue, into the trenches, it would be flooded in bad weather. That’s what happened that year. Oh, that was a field for dogs, big strong dogs. It was about 700 yards, from end to end, with those dykes. A run up of about 400, 450, then you had hunting for nearly 300 yards. It was good terrain for the hare, very bumpy, so there was a lot of variables involved. It was almost like an open meeting, but in closed ground. The hares were left in below, came in through the holes in the ditches, and once they were in, they had 20 acres to themselves, it was like going into the wild. It was mighty coursing, absolutely unreal.”
A combination of circumstances saw Clounanna lost however; the 100-year lease ran out, wasn’t renewed by the owners, the basic old stand was condemned by the Fire and Safety Officer, there was no running water on site, no power.
For three years, the Irish Cup went west, to Tralee, but the Cup came home, or as near to home as it’s ever going to get. Limerick Racecourse, just outside Patrickswell, just a few miles up the road from Adare; doesn’t have the same magnificence of the field in Clounanna, but it’s light years ahead in terms of facilities.
“To host a quality event like this, you need a quality venue, and this is it,” says Delaney. “You have Grade 1 facilities here, for everyone. Stalls in the ground floor, a bar etc, Ladbrokes open, Supermacs. On the second floor, a self-service restaurant, bar, viewing area; on the top level a full dining room, and for €30 a head, you get a deal that includes three-course meal, tea and coffee all day long, with full access to all areas.
“It’s an excellent venue, an imposing place, natural amphitheatre.
“You’re looking out directly over the coursing stretch, several thousand judges judging the Judge! Because Clounanna was beside Adare, we’ve kept Adare as the focal point of all the social activities. There are two hotels, the Woodlands and the Dunraven Arms, and both are fully booked. The Irish Cup brings the curtain down on the coursing season, in Ireland and England, in England now forever, and we have a big dinner-dance in the Dunraven Arms Hotel where everyone can let their hair down. With so many people coming over from the Waterloo Cup in England, that should be a great night.”
Should be a fantastic weekend, all told, on and off the course. Many of this year’s Derby crop are trying their luck again, including beaten semi-finalists Boavista and Rio Rooney, along with Centre Line and Sonnydontgoaway, another two who made it to the last day.
Also in the field are several of the Clonmel Champion Stakes dogs, Black Ger, Droopy’s Saunders and Cnoc Baile, a reserve who qualified but wasn’t able to run.
“Cnoc Baile is owned by Betty Brodie, along with Jim, in England,” explained Damien Delaney; “they’re travelling over, along with their daughter Diana, Secretary of the Waterloo Cup. Then there’s the Castle Pines dog, we’ll all be cheering for him, because he’s half-owned by our club president, the Earl of Dunraven.”
Favoured above all however, Ashmore View, last year’s winner, trained by Dan Brassil in Ardfert. “He’s a very fresh dog,” advises Dave; “His only run this year was in the Kingdom Cup, and he won that, in Tralee, so he’s had much the same build-up as last year.” The one to watch out for then, but given that only two dogs, Celbridge Chance in 1960/61 and 61/62, Lusty More in 74/75, 75/76, have ever done two-in-a- row in the Irish Cup, it’s a big ask of Ashmore View.