‘The dogs are treated better than the wives’

One rule today, I say to myself again. No judgments. My first coursing meeting will be all about the occasion. Rights and wrongs for another day.

“Go up that hill, you little daisy.” The first brace are out of the slips, or so the fella says. Gazing across at the Comeraghs, feeling the first promise of spring, by chance at least I was looking in the right direction.

I flip through the mental dictionary another time. Buckles. Slips. Box men. I’ll need help here to make any fist of this. Former Irish Coursing Club president Tony McNamee, a genial Kilcullen man, as if there was any other kind, is the sort of fellow that would patiently explain the job at hand again, even after you had painted the wrong wall of his house.

The National Coursing Meeting is Tony’s Cheltenham. He has missed one meeting in 51 years, when his mother died in ’84.

“It’s a small man’s game,” says Tony. “And I love to see the small man do well. The big man might do well for a year or two but then he’ll be gone. The small man is always there. He’ll always come back.”

When we’ve soon seen off the last of our big men, we’ll need our small men like never before.

A local man, Tony O’Gorman, a smallish man, at least in stature, and a wary man, sees me approaching and insists straight away that “the daughter carries all the money.” Magnanimously, I waive my fee and let him tell me, wistfully enough, that “he reached a semi-final once with Rathkeale.

“And the uncle won an Irish Cup with Black Jester in 1927.”

I’d love to have offered more recognition. Seeing as Tony brought up money, I look for ammunition for an assault on the bookies. “The clock man don’t be far out,” was as far as he would go. I nodded sagely, cursing the gap in my dictionary.

I make my way up to Bernard Barry anyway, a Dunboyne man. Business is ok, though “nothing on ten years ago.

“I’d go socially to ten or twelve meetings a year. I just love it; the speed and skill of the dogs. Just look around, the families here, the camaraderie. It’s sport at its most basic. Like a boxing match. Head-to-head. My dog is better than your dog.”

A bit nonplussed still, it’s really only out in the exercise ring between the rounds that I begin to connect with it. The spirit among the owners and trainers. One man who won in the Derby this morning isn’t long back from Lourdes. “Whatever holy water ye’re bringing back, he must be washing himself in it.”

I meet Sean McGrath, who has Norfolk Nancy with him, David Needham’s dog, a beaten dog. “Ah, this is a place where dreams aren’t always realised,” says Sean. Still, he is keen to stress there are no losers here. Needham was trying for ten years before he finally won a trial stake to qualify for this meeting.

Brushing up on my lingo now, I confidently approach John Condon’s grand sleek dog and enquire if “he is still standing”. “She is” says John and I have to tell myself again there’s no crime in sneaking a glimpse below before chancing your arm.

He’s walking Why Tanyard Ash — her mother won bitch of the year in 2005 — and he’s quietly hopeful. You can see nerves in him. Behind him Tom Fitzgerald is trying to “empty out” Ocean Tolula, who won by three lengths this morning. Tolula is “a very easy bitch to motivate. Honest as the day is long.”

Jumping clear as Tolula obliges heavily on the emptying front, I rush back to Bernard Barry with a fist of coppers, beginning to sense how much is invested in these dogs. “Like children,” he says. “The dogs are treated better than the wives. When you’ve put so much of yourself into an animal over the years. The walks, washing their feet, making sure they’re right…”

“Go on the red.” I’m at the top of the field when Why Tanyard Ash qualifies for today’s Oaks last eight. The pride in young Eoin Conlon is clearly visible as he collects her. “She took that hill well,” he beams. “We’ll bring her home now and put her to bed and give her supper at seven.” Will the father be nervous tonight, I wonder.

“Ah no, sure we have farming to do when we go home.” He was fooling no one.

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