The pup’s band of supporters rolled into Clonmel Town on Saturday morning full of hope and no little expectation, and the bubbly contingent rolled out yesterday evening ready to celebrate a stunning achievement for the coursing novices.
Denis has long been synonymous with the Lemon prefix which has had so much success on the track, but just a few years ago Kathleen had her head turned towards the field by her good friend and trainer Johnny Linehan.
Having then been involved with Trial Stake winners under the care of Denis O’Driscoll and Owen McKenna, Kathleen picked Thomas The Tank from a litter by dam Newinn All In, which she part-owned as a syndicate member.
“I was involved with the dam, Newinn All In, and we bred her to Razor Ashmore, and we got a pup from Jim O’Donnell,” said Kathleen, still unable to believe she was being interviewed as owner of the Coursing Derby winner. “I went up and picked him out at 12 weeks old, brought him home in the car and loved him from day one.
“Because he’s the first coursing dog we’ve ever had (at home) I was giving him extra attention. I used to go down to the field and open the gate and he’d jump up on me, and I’d bring him for a walk.”
The realisation of the day’s achievement momentarily darts through her mind.
“I really can’t believe it. I’m shellshocked. Every day I came I was expecting to be beaten — which mightn’t be a good thing.
“I had a different feeling this morning ... but I still expected to be beaten. It’s just a dream.
“I’m always very negative, but he’s a brilliant dog. He has been one of the talking dogs all through the Derby, but I’d never let myself get far enough to think I was going to win.
“My father has done a brilliant job with him. It’s the first coursing dog he’s had, the first he’s trained and sure he’d look after the dogs better than he’d look after us kids. But that’s a good thing, too.
“The dog is so easy, he’s done everything right — he’d eat stones if you gave him stones. He just does everything you ask of him. He’s our champ.”
As one might guess, the name of the dog didn’t come from Kathleen, but from her niece Lucy, daughter of her sister Aileen and track bookmaker Richie Walsh.
“Because Jim (O’Donnell) is from just outside Cashel, I wanted to call him Rock On Rockall after the Rock of Cashel,” she added. “He was only a small pup and when we brought him home we asked Lucy what she’d like to call him and she said ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’.
“That was his name from then, and it’s appropriate because he is a little tank. He’s very, very strong.”
There were plenty of offers to buy the pup after he impressed in his trial stake victory in Freshford, but he had become part of the fixtures and fittings in the Lennon household and Kathleen, in particular, was reluctant to let him go. And how she has been rewarded!
“We had a couple of offers to buy him after he won his Trial Stake but I was so mad about the dog, I just didn’t want to sell him,” she explained. “Mammy actually said to me one day: ‘should we sell him?’ and I said to her, messing, ‘sure we could win the Derby’. She wasn’t convinced.
“But for him to actually do it is unbelievable. It hasn’t hit me. I’ve had such feelings and emotions over the last three days. I’m in a bubble and it hasn’t burst yet. We’ll celebrate for a week, I suppose, and give the dog a rest and see where to go from there.”
The victory is an early wedding present for Kathleen, who is getting married in December, and in this greyhound-mad family even Thomas The Tank has earned his place in the matrimonial ceremonies.
“I always said that if he won the Derby, he’d be the ring bearer, so he probably will be now,” she revealed. “I’ll have to go through with my promise now.”
While the impressive support couldn’t hide their delight, Kathleen’s father, Denis, was unquestionably the coolest man in Powerstown Park.
A life spent involved with track dogs will ground most individuals, and despite the phenomenal achievement, he remained entirely unfazed, reluctantly brought into the limelight by his effervescent daughters.
“There’s no training in him,” he explained, matter-of-factly. “You let him out in the field and that’s the training.
“He was reared in a six-acre field and he used never go in, even when if it was raining — he’d be as fit as a fiddle. They’re either able to do it or they’re not. And he can.”
It’s that simple. But, with no previous experience of coursing dogs, how did he know quite how good Thomas The Tank was? He didn’t — at first.
“I didn’t know what I had until the first day he went to Freshford but when he went there they (the onlookers and timekeepers) thought he was a very fast dog,” he admitted.
“When he went to Kilcullen (for the Troy Electrical Puppy Stake), he got it from all sides and we discovered the day after that he wasn’t right. There was a slight injury.
“But we knew, coming here, we had a chance.”
The dog’s only scare in his five courses en route to yesterday’s success came in the second round, where he appeared to miss the kick from slips. But his power up the famous incline carried him to victory and it was relatively straightforward from there.
“The hound he met in the second round was the fastest early-paced greyhound in the Derby — it was the first time he was led,” added Denis. “I thought in Freshford he was all early pace, but he loved the hill here.”
The victory bridged a gap of almost 60 years for the Lennons, Denis remembering being present to see a relation’s dog win the same trophy in the middle of the last century.
“The first time I was here was for the Derby in 1954, which was won by my first cousin, Paddy Lennon, with Local Matter — that’s how old I am.”
The rookie coursing trainer is sure to be in demand long before the 2013-2014 season gets into full swing, but what are the plans for Thomas The Tank, who has the coursing world as his oyster? A period at stud? A whole career at stud? Or a campaign geared at returning for the Champion Stakes in 2014, or the Irish Cup? What next for him, Denis?
“I’ll bring him home and feed him,” he added, with just a hint of a glint in his eye.
Did I mention he was cool?