When Dessie Scahill puts down his binoculars at the end of the Curragh Derby meeting this afternoon he will surely do so with a sense of real sadness.
It will signal the end of an era, his 48th and final Derby call. It has been well publicised this week that Scahill, who will celebrate his 70th birthday next month, is on the verge of drawing stumps on an honourable career and so the distinctive voice of the best-known racing commentator this country has ever produced, arguably best loved as well, will fall silent on July 26, the last day of his final contract with the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR).
Scahill is an icon of the game and has more than stood the test of time.
The first commentary he ever did on the Irish Derby goes all the way back to 1971 and he has been zig-zagging around Ireland ever since. He’s had a magnificent innings and it is no exaggeration to say is universally liked and well-respected. Dessie Scahill can be described very simply, he’s a nice man.
One of my earliest encounters with the budding legend came 40 years ago, during the Galway Festival.
I was now working for the Examiner, but wasn’t actually covering the meeting for the paper and was up in Salthill this night, on the prowl, like any normal 20-something!
I ran into Dessie and ended up going for something to eat with him. What stuck with me ever since, however, was he insisted on paying when the bill arrived and there was no arguing with him.
Truth to tell it was unlikely I was carrying much of a bundle anyway!
Like most of the members of the press room, Dessie was fond of a wager and I often had a bet for him.
Thurles one filthy Thursday in the middle of winter many moons ago remains firmly embedded in the
He nodded in my direction to leave the press room and, once outside, queried as to whether I would back a horse for him in the first, a maiden hurdle.
Possessing a major edge is every punter’s dream and I suspected Dessie might have a well-marked card for this particular contest and so was delighted to be called into action.
“How much do you want on?,’’ I asked. “A thousand quid,’’ was the response. Queue a sharp intake of breath, as I immediately began to calculate how much I could afford to lose.
Dessie then scampered off for a minute of two, before returning and handing over the readies. “Do the best you can for me,’’ he said.
Thurles isn’t regarded as the first all-weather track in Ireland for nothing and I doubt racing would have been possible anywhere else in our fair country that day. As it was, persistent rain had made the ground extremely testing, bad enough to get any horse beaten.
Anyway, I decided to risk £400 of my own on Dessie’s beauty, which, at the time, was far more than I was getting into my hand as wages every week, fully aware that if this got stuffed a rather bleak period ahead was inevitable.
I have no idea of the name of the horse, but well remember both the trainer and the jockey, although this week Dessie indicated to me that it would be better if their names did not appear in print. Ah yes, even now old habits die hard!
The horse in question was even-money and I tossed the first £500 in the direction of that great layer, the late Davy Meehan, and recall my old friend from Waterford, Noel Cummins, taking a couple of hundred as well.
Got the £1,400 on at evens and then it was a case of praying nothing would go wrong. I had no cause for worry and the horse won doing handstands.
“Dessie, Dessie, the next time you want a few quid on you know where I am,’’ I gleefully sang on the way to the winner’s enclosure.
Scahill, of course, is best known for his brilliant radio commentary on Dawn Run, when the mare landed the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
I listened back to it on
Wednesday morning and, even now, it still has the capacity to move you.
Any younger readers who have never heard it only have to go on YouTube and type in Dessie Scahill Dawn Run commentary and up it will come.
Decades of traversing literally every road in Ireland and perching oneself high up in the commentator’s box are going to be over for Scahill come July 27.
He is sanguine and realistic regarding what will amount to a dramatic change in the speed and intensity with which he has lived his life for so long.
Scahill said: “I won’t miss the commentating, but what does concern me is my ability to adjust. I am wondering how I am going to punch in the time.’’
He is adamant he will continue to go racing, although obviously on a much-reduced basis. “I don’t like going racing when I’m not working, but I’m not saying it will be a blank no to the odd day.
“I am not used to walking around at the races with nothing to do. But I will still go to places such as Leopardstown and the Curragh, I will go to see old friends.’’
Scahill has no regrets about his chosen career path, or the manner in which it evolved over so many years.
“I have no regrets,’’ he said. “If I wasn’t a commentator what would I have done? When Sunday racing came in there was, as you know, no family life, with completely unsociable hours. But I gave the job everything I had and don’t feel I owe racing anything.’’
He admits he is not overly enamoured with the way the racing-day experience has been developing. “I have been falling out of love with the game for a while now.
“Racing has become all about the laptop on the table and watching on ATR. There is no one betting at the races any more. The game has changed, the characters are all gone, they are either dead or just not going racing.’’
And now one of the greatest characters racing has ever produced, Ireland’s Peter O’Sullevan, is about to depart the stage.
He will leave a rich legacy and will certainly never be forgotten.
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