It’s not Tom Mulcahy’s first time having a qualifier for Clonmel – in many decades of trying he’s been there twice before, in fact reached the quarter-final in 2000 with Glanmore Smut, who has the record of winning the first Trial Stake of this Millennium, in Abbeyfeale.
But still, no matter what age you are, no matter what gender, the feeling never gets old. Clonmel, Powerstown Racecourse, the annual National Coursing Meeting, the Oaks; Glanmore Susan isn’t anywhere near the top of the betting but that’s not the point, not even related to the point. She’s there, won her Trial Stake only a couple of weeks ago but no matter; she qualified, and as the owner, the trainer, the breeder, Tom can now dream the dream.
Back in the kitchen he sits at table by the big window looking out at the sloping fields beyond, savouring his tea and toast with long-suffering wife Lillian, and awaits the arrival of the usual suspects, his coursing crew.
It’s a three-way relationship, coursing, a pagan marriage of hare, dog and humanity. It’s a tough sport, a hard sport, played out in fields through the depths of winter, all three of the major players in this ancient drama subject to the vicissitudes of nature.
Great triumphs against all odds, great disasters to match, but shared by all, the pleasure and the pain alike. It’s a sport which, beyond any other, binds those who take part in a very close fellowship.
So it is that Tom has his own regular gang, travelling companions who have enjoyed the craic for many years from one end of Munster to the other, and always, in the spring, ending up travelling together for the last great hurrah of the season, the three-day national meeting in Clonmel.
First to arrive was Paul Mulcahy, then JJ Sexton, both from Milford; they were closely followed by Liam O’Brien (“Ah Liam, Begod – you’re on time today!”) and John Ronan, both of them from over the road. Tom is originally from Tullylease but is long domiciled in Ballyhea, in Glanmore to be precise, thus the prefix for all his dogs.
Immediately there are congratulations all round for Paul, winner of the Milford Open Coursing last Sunday week – “Oh, well celebrated, I can assure ye,” says Paul. Billy Mulcahy arrives; no relation of Tom’s, but his sidekick, will be catching Susan in Clonmel. Very soon, final preparations are under way. “Are you coming Lillian?”, asks John – “Of course she’s coming,” says JJ, “There’d be no bit of glamour there without her.” “Hold on,” says Lillian, “I’m not ready ‘til I put on my dog-hat.” Superstition, habit – no-one wants to put the hex on Susan.
The dog is put in the van, Tom and Billy travel together, the rest are with JJ, and at five minutes to nine, off they go – Clonmel here we come.
The roads are icy, dangerous, the omens bad – this isn’t going to start at 11.30. At the gate we meet Carmel Leavey, taking tickets – “It went down to -7 in Clonmel last night,” she tells us, “And when I got here at 7.30 this morning it was still -4. The field was covered yesterday, but we’ve heard nothing yet about a start time.”
At twenty past ten Tom parks up, alongside Tom and Lester Power, old friends from Waterford. Tess, Tom’s wife, wasn’t up to travelling, first meeting missed in many a long year, but she was there in spirit – hot whiskey, to be precise, offered immediately, a long-standing Tess Power tradition at any coursing meeting. The gang arrived, gathered around the van, offered Tom their final best wishes before heading for their regular pitch in the stand, and in the hospitality area underneath…
Beside us was the van of the Crafty Kennels, Noelle Divilly and her two boys Peter and Shane, with cousin Olivia Roche, and oh, did they have a tough draw! Two bitches qualified for the Oaks, but drawn against two of the short-odds favourites (both duly well beaten), while their dog, Crafty Hippo, was up against one of the Derby favourites, Tynwald Stuart. “Keep away from me!” she says to John O’Keeffe, featured in these pages last week, whose Call Her Now she was to face in the second course of the day, “I’ll talk to you afterwards!”
And then, the announcement everyone had been anticipating – start delayed ‘til 12.30. Tom headed off on a walk, kill some time, down to the hare enclosure where Danny Murphy, John O’Dwyer, Ted Boyle and the lads were busy at their work, every hare individually housed and identified. “A complex operation,” says Tom, “But these fellas do a great job.”
On the way back past the fine new permanent slipper’s hut, Tom digs his heel into the turf – “Still a good crust on that,” he reckons, “They should roll it, bring the moisture up to the top.”
He’s getting worried, and with reason – soon another announcement, another postponement, to one o’clock. All this waiting around, but still he’s as calm – on the outside anyway – as a man can be, no sign of nerves. “Hey,” shouts Eamonn Finn from Dromina, “Make sure you tell people, Tom’s dog ran 25 races before she finally qualified for Clonmel, surely the longest-serving bitch ever!” Tom only grins, walks on. Meets horse-trainer Mark Prescott and Geraldine Reece, and they spend a few minutes of nostalgia, discussing the old Irish Cup in Clounanna, then the Waterloo Cup, which unfortunately has met its own Waterloo with the banning of coursing cross-channel.
We meet Bridie and Padjoe Treacey, from Martinstown – “D’you know, this fella (indicating yours truly) served the Mass for our wedding in Ballyhea in 1964!” Well now! Anyway, it all serves to keep Tom’s mind occupied, though in truth, it’s already well occupied.
Eventually the green light – under way. As the early courses are run Tom is watching the big screen, trying to get his own timing right. He has already taken Glanmore Susan from the van, given her a rub, put on the cover again, put on the white collar. And then, time to go, head for slips. Billy heads the other way, top of the field to do the catching – “Now Tomás,” he says, “I’m going away — best of luck to you.”
Down in the warm-up area he bumps into Richie Delahunty – “You’re Gillogue Jess? We’re meeting ye,” and they head off side by side, walking the dogs, awaiting the call from PJ Roberts, the Control Steward. “Don’t go too far Richie!” – a young lad, shouting instructions; “Begod, you sound like the owner” – “I am!”, he proudly announces.
“Gillogue Jess and Glanmore Susan – bring them on!”, the shout from PJ, and the dogs are brought up, ears checked against their certificates. Into the hut, handed over to Richie Quinn, the slipper – “That’s it now,” says Tom, “No more I can do.”
Seconds later and that IS it – poor Susan, she never got away at all, left at slips, two lengths behind inside 20m, lost another two in the next 30m, well beaten up the field. Back in PJ’s hut young Eoin is shouting at the TV monitor – “Go on Jess, go on, go on – YES!” Youthful exuberance, understandable. For Tom, age-old disappointment — “She was gone from the word go.” Rubbing salt in the wound, Tom then had to go back to the slipper’s hut – Susan had turned at the top of the field and headed right back down again.
When you’re beaten in Clonmel, it’s a long and lonely walk back to the van; people are understanding, nothing much said, allowing a man to digest the defeat. Back at the van he gives Susan a drink, then washes the dirt off her paws, one by one, gives her a good rub, on with the cover, then takes her for a walk. When he’s gone Billy arrives, unused lead draped over his arm – “Redundant, no job!” he declares.
It’s not all over for Glanmore Susan or for Tom Mulcahy, she was entered in the consolation stakes, will run in the Kitty Butler today. “Sure we might be better off,” says Tom to Brian Walsh, in conversation, but Brian is having none of it – “Don’t be saying that – you came here to win the Oaks, just like every other man.” Not so, says Tom, “Ah, I knew we hadn’t a flyer.” And he did, he knew, but still he could dream, he could dream. How many of us could say that, in these last few weeks?