There are people in coursing the length and breadth of Ireland who have been walking dogs for decades, mile after mile day after day in hail, rain, wind, snow and sleet, in hopes of winning that elusive Derby or Oaks Trial Stake and with it, that coveted pass to the annual National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel.
And despite all that effort, all that sacrifice, they have yet to achieve their Holy Grail.
Then there’s the Wexford father/son combination of Aidan (the father) and John Roche, responsible for one of this season’s Derby favourites, Kingsmill Rover.
It was only just over eight years ago that they decided to get back into coursing and even then, as explained by John, more by a combination of circumstance and happenstance than by design.
“We had a pup on his own here, a track dog, and we had nothing the same age to rear with him; Dad happened to be on the gallops in Ballinaboola one day and came across this coursing pup, and bought him.”
That coursing pup – Kingsmill Judge – turned out to be not half-bad, winning the TA Morris Stake in Clonmel.
John: “Kingsmill Judge was by Judicial Best out of Garren Blonde and as we were leaving Clonmel that day I picked up the paper, opened it, and there was an ad for a litter of pups by Judicial Best out of Hollyhill Blonde, a litter sister to Garren Blonde — they were for sale in Tyrone.
“I’m a vet, was too busy in the practice to go all the way to Tyrone but I had a friend from Tyrone who was working down here, Diarmuid McGrath. I asked him if he’d do me a favour the next time he was home and have a look at those pups and if they were okay, I’d take a dog and a bitch.
‘I’m not going home for a while,’ he said ‘But I’ll do better than that for you — I’ll send my father there.’
His father happens to be Colm McGrath, the legendary greyhound owner, so a man who has had six Derby winners picked out the two pups for me, a dog and a bitch.”
The dog was Kingsmill Dynamo, went on to win the Derby in 2009 and since taking up stud duties at the Dunphys kennels, has proved to be a phenomenal sire, has ‘thrown’ 39 qualifiers for Clonmel this year alone.
Why, even that little track puppy they had when Aidan bought Kingsmill Judge turned out to be a winner, as did the bitch chosen by Colm McGrath along with Kingsmill Dynamo.
John: “The track dog was originally Kingsmill something; he won the first round of the Future Champion Unraced Stake and we sold him, got big money for him, the most we ever got for a dog — €30,000. He was renamed Lightning Bozz, won the consolation Derby the following year, broke his hock afterwards.”
And the bitch? “That was Kingsmill Bliss, who ended up favourite for the Oaks that year also (2009), was actually odds-on but was beaten in the quarter-final, got to the Champion Stakes afterwards. We were just lucky, that’s all.”
Though they are both now heavily involved, John’s qualifications and experience as a vet proving invaluable, the impression you get in an admittedly short interface with the duo is that Aidan is the main driving-force of the operation, his love for racing dogs stretching back to his youth, and a fateful and fortunate first experience.
“My home place was about halfway between here (Barntown) and New Ross and this fella used to buy sheep and lambs from us. One day, when I was about 16, he said to us ‘Do ye want a greyhound?’ My father was only interested in horses and he said ‘No!’ — I said ‘Yes!’ and we got the dog, on the condition that we’d give him one pup from the litter.
“I bred it well, she had the litter and as agreed, I gave him a pup. From those that were left two of them won a race each and I then brought them to the sales in Shelbourne Park in Dublin, up on the train, in crates. I walked them from the station to Shelbourne Park — you wouldn’t get away with that now! I sold them both, one for £28 and the other for £40 — big money in those days! That was about 1958, I was then 18.”
That was that though for more than a decade, til Aidan got his own place and settled down where he still lives, on the outskirts of Barntown village.
“I had no more dogs then til I came down here in 1970 — we bought this land and everything you see here was built after that.
“In ‘72 I started back into the dogs again and I have them since. Track dogs mostly but I won two (coursing) Trial Stakes with two track dogs, and one of those dogs was only 53lbs in weight, tiny for a coursing dog. He was by Brilliant Chimes. The other dog was Master Law and he was one of the favourites for the English Derby afterwards, on the track — he was a very good track dog.”
Obviously a lucky family then and that good fortune isn’t confined to the dogs. As mentioned by Aidan, horses are also in the Roche blood and in partnership with several others John now has 20 horses in training with various stables, and as with the dogs it’s an interest that also pays good dividends.
The dogs though is where they have their own greatest input, very busy and very active kennels with Aidan – now retired from farming — at the helm.
“He’s the Boss, he’s the trainer, he gives all the instructions,” says John – “I’m only here to offer back-up. Still the boy, always will be.”
Not true of course, as John is very much hands-on in the whole operation. Oddly enough however, though you would expect that with his veterinary background he would be as much into science as instinct in his preparations and analysis of how the dogs are progressing, this isn’t the case. Oh he’ll use what’s on offer from science, but only up to a point.
“I’m not overly into the science. To me, with a dog you get what you look at — the dog will tell you. You look at his coat, you look at his skin, you look at how he’s galloping, that will tell you all you need to know. If a blood result tells you something different to what the dog tells you, I’d question the blood result first. I would check the dog but I imagine the blood result mightn’t be right and that would apply always. If it shows up that there might be an infection that’s fine, that’s something you’d want to check but as far as other parameters go, if he’s eating well, working well, looking well, nine times out of ten that’s enough. I think people place too much emphasis on blood results — the dog will let you know.”
His father concurs. “Do the simple things right and you’ll never go far astray, and that applies no matter what sport you’re training.”
Not that John’s training as a vet doesn’t come in handy. “Of course it does. You can check out their injuries yourself, you can check out their bloods, know if their levels are right, if their nutrition is right. You’re more aware of problems, should pick them up quicker.
“It always helps to have a system, to know why you’re doing everything you do. If you’re doing everything for a reason you can have confidence in your system, there are no doubts there, no negativity. There’s a lot of research available that’s been tried and tested, has been proven to work and I do research things all the time.
Like, Aidan O’Brien doesn’t train now the way he trained when he started, he doesn’t train like Vincent O’Brien trained and Vincent was the best in his day. Things move on and it’s the same with greyhounds. Dogs are fitter now, they have better nutrition, better gallops.
They run a tight operation, the Roches, a hard-working family with matriarch Kathleen overseeing all at home. More critically, perhaps, they also appear to have that golden touch, the bit of luck without which few operations will thrive. Already they have one golden goose, Kingsmill Dynamo, and who’s to say that in the next year or two he won’t surpass the Clonmel record of even Bexhill Eoin, who had 40 qualifiers in 2011 then shattered that figure with 57 in 2012?
And who’s to say also that Dynamo won’t be joined very shortly by Kingsmill Rover, formerly Droopys Rover, bought, naturally enough, from the Dunphys after winning his Trial Stake at Dungarvan. This weekend, we’ll know.
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