Ignore ‘selling plates’ and let thoroughbreds shine through

IT WAS often a source of bemusement for the wonderful Marcus Dunlop (RIP) that when it came to racehorses, the more he knew, the less he won.

Marcus was a family friend. A Protestant raised on the rich, dark soil on the banks of the river Faughan, he was sent to Trinity College in Dublin. His family had hopes, albeit faint ones, that he might become a minister.

It was an unlikely vocation and Marcus returned from the Catholic south with his love of both literature and gambling vastly enriched.

His other great passion was the land. He was spectacularly happy when on his hands and knees weeding carrots or thinning turnips. Often rising at dawn on a Saturday morning, he would spend a few hours in the field before coming to the Heaney house to mull over his selections for that day’s racing.

In some ways, he was the complete Irishman as he combined the Protestant work ethic with the Catholic tradition of having a good time.

A learned man, Marcus naturally respected knowledge and therefore it never ceased to amaze him that his ever-increasing reservoir of facts about trainers, jockeys, horses, breeding, tracks and form failed to equate to ever-increasing visits to the pay-out counter.

I now know how Marcus used to feel. After a weekend overload of World Cup and Gaelic football, many of my long-held theories and principles are in total disarray. Like Marcus, the certainty of youth has been replaced with confusion and bafflement.

Consider some of the mysteries from the weekend.

Home-grown managers are best. But if this is so, then how do we unravel the riddle of John O’Mahony – a prophet in Leitrim and Galway, but not in his native county of Mayo? A miracle-worker in Leitrim, O’Mahony guided the Connacht minnows to their first provincial title in 67 years.

He then famously brought the West awake in 1998 when he helped guide Galway to their first All-Ireland title in 32 years. Three years later, he proved it wasn’t a fluke when he did it again.

When appointed as the manager of his home county of Mayo, it looked like all the ingredients were in place. Having reached All-Ireland finals in 2004 and 2006, Mayo had got the man who would bring them over the finishing line.

John O’Mahony resigned on Saturday night following a season when his side were dumped out of Connacht by Sligo (managed by outside manager Kevin Walsh). This was followed by a defeat in the first round of the Qualifiers to Longford (managed by outside manager Glenn Ryan).

When in doubt give preference to the team with the experienced manager who has the proven track record of success In that case, Saturday’s Qualifier game between Cavan and Wicklow was a no-brainer. The game pitted Tommy Carr (zero Championships) against Mick O’Dwyer (eight All-Irelands with Kerry, two Leinster titles with Kildare, and one Leinster title with Laois).

Despite being reduced to 13 men and trailing by seven points, Tommy Carr’s team won the game.

Mick O’Dwyer made one change to the side that was beaten by Westmeath in Leinster. He brought in goalkeeper James Flynn – who opted to launch every kick-out down the middle of the pitch, ignoring the two spare men in his own defence.

The best teams have a gameplan and they stick to it After shipping five goals against Meath, the common consensus is that Dublin manager Pat Gilroy shouldn’t have abandoned the blanket defence that he installed and employed during every game of the National League.

We are now being told that Gilroy should have been more bloody-minded and stuck with the system despite its manifest failings against Wexford.

But should managers always be completely stubborn and single-minded? English football fans would disagree. They have been begging Fabio Capello to use a 4-4-1-1 formation with Steven Gerrard playing behind Wayne Rooney. The argument is extremely persuasive as against Germany this system would have enabled Gerrard to float between midfield and attack. This flexibility would have allowed England to operate a more defence-minded five-man midfield, an area of the field where they were completely overrun.

Fabio Capello refused to change and got beaten. Pat Gilroy changed and still got beaten. Confused? There is no substitute for good players Really? Again, try telling that to 60 million people on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen, and Lee Dixon were not engaging in Blighty bombast when they declared that England should win the game because they had better players than the Germans.

No one would raise an eyebrow if Jose Mourinho declared he wanted to bring David James, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, or Wayne Rooney to the Bernabeau. He’s even been linked with Glen Johnson.

Mourinho would struggle to find so many players of the same calibre in the German squad.

Nevertheless a young, inexperienced German side with a shrewd manager triumphed against more illustrious rivals.

A similar scenario occurred when the wily John Evans steered a young Tipp outfit to success over a Laois side that had secured a draw against a Meath team now being tipped as outside contenders for the Sam Maguire Cup.

Amid such mayhem and unpredictability, it would be easy to despair and to question all beliefs and systems.

But in such times, I like to remember the wise words of another one of Maghera’s most venerated punters, the late, great John Tunney.

A racing aficionado, Tunney would advise his students not to bet on ‘selling plates’ – the races at the end of cards for low grade, unsuccessful horses.

Tunney’s logic contended that good thoroughbreds are more consistent, so their form is easier to predict.

Like mediocre football teams, the mediocre racehorse tends to be an erratic beast.

There are still a lot of ‘selling plates’ to be contested, at home and in South Africa.

But when it’s all done and dusted, expect the winning team to have a home-grown manager with a proven track record, and he will preside over a squad of excellent players who stick to a tried and tested gameplan.


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