Doggie folk muzzle the recession

THE News of the World had for much of its colourful life the proud motto ‘All human life is there’ inscribed beneath it’s bold, red masthead.

The very same could be etched above the turnstile to welcome the thousands of spectators to the National Coursing Championships every February.

These hardy souls, wrapped in wellies and heated by thermos flasks are the same people who make the journey every year. Like giant, ancient tortoises, in a David Attenborough documentary who make an epic pilgrimage through the Galapagos to find somewhere to lay their eggs, they continue a family tradition.

And all human life certainly is here. Behind the main grandstand an oversized, sparkling silver Rolls Royce — that of a well-known bookmaker — is parked. Despite this tangible evidence that the house always wins, not 100ft away, the plain people of Ireland part with their cash. And this after a morning’s commute to Clonmel Racecourse accompanied by a soundtrack of economic doom on the radio waves.

Brian Divilly, Irish Coursing Club President insists the recession may be biting but it’s muzzled when it comes to Clonmel in the first week of February.

“The recession didn’t effect us this year,” he insists, “but crowds were down on Monday and Tuesday because of the weather really — people just couldn’t get to us. But the recession didn’t really take hold I don’t think for us.”

However, Limerick-based bookie John Carty was feeling the pinch.

“Business wouldn’t be great this week. Today wasn’t so bad but Monday and Tuesday were very, very bad,” he says.

“You can’t blame people with the way things are going. It’s very scary with all the news everywhere at the moment and the amount of places closing. Last year was a bumper championship but I’d say we’re down 30-40% — that’s a big drop, isn’t it?”

Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall tells a joke at the start of the film about two elderly women in a restaurant. One says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other replies, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

A similar wise crack applied yesterday in the shadow of Slieve na mBan in Co Tipperary. For the first time the role of slipper — the official responsible for letting loose the dogs at the start of the course, a man who draws much ire from disconcerted dog owners and punters alike — was alternated between two men. Twice the abuse then.

For many years Tom Murphy, a Kerryman who lives in Bishopstown, Cork city has been the figure who has undertaken this high-pressure job.

But a little bit of history was made yesterday when he was joined in the slips by Kilmallock’s Denis Crowley.

“I’m the young fella, if you like; the new boy. It’s a big experience, it’s a great achievement to get here and I’m very proud of that really,” says Crowley.

“This is the Croke Park and the All-Ireland and it’s an honour and a pleasure to do it. It’s the first time there was two slippers in history here so it’s a nice thing to have on the CV.”

Murphy, the sorcerer in a role that needs a sprinkling of magic to keep everyone happy at the best of times is content to have an apprentice.

“We’re getting on very well, we’re helping each other out and that’s the name of the game,” he says.

“There is pressure; you’re dealing with live animals, wild animals. And there’s a lot of luck and dependence on the weather. This weather is bad really for slipping

“There’s a lot of money involved so people obviously care. There’s always someone going to give you hassle, there’s 64 runners and only one winner, so there’ll always be one to give out about something out of the 63. So we’ll take that — like a ref at a match.”

Crowley, a pioneer badge pinned to his traditional red overcoat, like that of his colleague did not have a drink to celebrate his baptism in Clonmel last night. But Murphy hoped to do so — maybe without 50% of the hassle.

And if he did retire to the bar then he no doubt did so with the celebrations of the victorious underdogs ringing in his ears. When the mighty fell this week, the unfancied dogs took advantage.

“This year’s championship was excellent because the big boys, so to speak, weren’t the winners,” says ICC Divilly.

“The Vincent O’Brien’s of this world didn’t have champions — it went to the smaller people — people who’d only have one or two dogs maybe. The hares were so good and when they’re so good they lead the dogs on a merry dance and there can be a couple of turns and the fitter dog would come out on top,” he adds.

“It’s all about breeding now for the champions — they’ll be in big demand and any money made will be ploughed back in to the sport because they love it so much. That sums it up.”

From the young children running after the spent dogs at the end of a course, the ordinary people gambling extraordinary money and the very rich perusing the array of greyhound ornaments and hare memorabilia in the tented stores behind the packed and vociferous grandstand, all human life is certainly here.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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