Coursing: through the veins and in their blood

Clonmel is coursing’s Mecca, an annual pilgrimage repeated over the three-day early spring National Coursing Meet at Powerstown Racecourse, but it’s a restricted affair.

The Derby, the highlight of the meet, is confined to the best of the male pups, the Oaks to the cream of bitch pups, while you also have an all-age Champion Dog Stakes and an all-age Champion Bitch Stakes.

The Irish Cup, however, the first round of which started yesterday at Limerick Racecourse in Patrickswell, is where it all comes together; dogs, bitches, all age and every age — the JP McManus Irish Cup is open to the lot. In the knowledge that it would take an exceptional specimen to win the Irish Cup most bitch owners give it a miss, choose instead the less-lucrative Gleeson Bitch Stakes, which begins today, but the option is always there.

80,000 yo-yos to the winner, it is also the most financially rewarding event on the Irish coursing calendar, a nice few bob for the winning owner. So, who are these owners?

Well, you have the big players: the likes of racehorse owner Patsy Byrne, of legendary trainer Brendan Matthews, of legendary gambler Harry Findlay; you have the big kennels: the Divilly Crafty in Claregalway, the Dunphy Droopys of Portlaw, Gerry Holian in Galway, the dog-mad Catunda McKennas of New Inn; you have the plethora of small individual owner/breeder/trainers like Liam O’Brien from Ballyhahill — famed far and wide for his rendition of ‘Shanagolden’ — guys like John Ronan from Ballyhea who have spent more hours, days, weeks, months and years of their lives walking the roads, dog in hand, always with that dream of ultimate glory. And you have the syndicates.

There they were in Patrickswell yesterday; the Jammy Dodger Syndicate from Charleville, roaring on Johnny Casanova as they had in Clonmel, and the dog again doing them proud; the No-Drink Syndicate with Last To Pay, who didn’t, which probably explains their syndicate name; the All-Boys-Syndicate whose dog, Moat Matty, a winner yesterday, is handled and trained by all girls, the mother/daughter combination of Ann and Lisa Quinlan; and there was Kick Me Inn, representing the fittingly named Andnowinslips Syndicate from Clonmel — why? Because Kick Me Inn will be in slips again tomorrow, courtesy of a battling win over Garbally Mac, won in typical old-style Tipperary fashion; neck-and-neck from slips, stride-for-stride as they went past halfway, Kick Me Inn gave poor Garbally a belt of a shoulder that would have done John Doyle proud, knocked him off his stride, off line, took the flag.

Eugene Cooney, journalist with The Sporting Press, is one of the 28-man syndicate that claims Kick Me Inn.

He explains how it works. “Joe Cribben and his partner Martina Ryan started it four years ago, got a group of us involved — we’re from all over the country, but a few of us are based in Clonmel, including Gerry and Charlie Chawke. Every year since then we’ve won a Trial Stake, a good dog each year.”

Coursing is often called the poor man’s sport, certainly in relation to horse-racing, but with those huge prizes now on offer, surely it must cost a few bob now to get into the game? Not so, says Eugene.

“We all pay €45 a month and we have a banker with us, Alan Leech, he looks after all the money so everything is above board. Joe looks after all the rest; he knows his dogs, picks out only the best. We buy one or two dogs every year, and even now we have two good pups again for next year again.”

€45 a month to get to the top table in the sport you love — sounds very reasonable. And the year-end dividend? “There is none — not yet anyway!” says Eugene, “But there are hats and scarves in Powerstown, and everyone gets fed for the three days, sandwiches and drink, a big spread down in the car-park — a lot of the money goes towards that, and it’s well worth it.”

One of the longest-lived syndicates around is the DMDH Syndicate — Dillon, McManus, Delaney, Hyde, four ladies, each with decades of coursing behind them.

The ‘Dillon’ element is Nell Dillon, from Rathkeale in Co Limerick, just up the road from Patrickswell. Like so many in the game, coursing is in Nell’s blood. “I’m in it all my life; my husband was Diarmuid Dillon, from Kerry, well known because of coursing.

“We go back a long way, the four of us, back to Green Geansai, in ‘97 I think it was.

“The small meeting is the whole thing, the Trial Stake, winning a Trial Stake. I love going around to all the different courses, meeting all the different people — that’s the real sport of it, a real country sport. This year now we had a great year, we were out 10 days, got to four finals, won one, with a bitch — she was beaten the first course in Clonmel but broke a toe as well. But we were there.”

With Nell was another venerable coursing lady, Nora Raleigh, originally from Newcastlewest but now of Rathkeale. She echoed Nel’s sentiments. “Wherever we go we have a good time, and we’d have the same good time whether we win or lose.”

Mind you, unlike most of those who play this game, Nora has known the glory of an Irish Cup win.

“2003, three of us in the syndicate — my uncle, myself and Noreen (McManus). My uncle bought him as a pup for €500, he was out of Chorus Thriller and Hilltown — sure every time he went out he won, he was absolutely brilliant, wasn’t he Nell?

“But that was a real bonus. The reason we’re in coursing is that it is so, so sociable. We were in a syndicate one time, 14 of us, and we hardly ever got a flag; then we decided we’d group up, go after a few good dogs instead of one bad one!

“But we’ve made lots and lots of friends over the years, and we’ve stayed friends. I love the dogs, I love the coursing, and when you get it good, it’s such a pleasure — we have marvellous fun out of it.”

That’s coursing, lads, every man and every woman, all-aged pleasure.

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