Coursing: The Doolan family in Clarina, Co Limerick, can’t wait for tomorrow to dawn as they head to Clonmel for the National Coursing Meeting where their bitch Breska Lantern is favourite for the Oaks.
Young Mark Doolan may not realise it just yet, but he has become quite a celebrity in coursing circles.
Tomorrow his Breska Lantern (Kyle James/Blades Of Glory) heads to the National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel as favourite for the 2015 Oaks — seven years after his Powerstown debut with Breska More.
Not bad going for a young man still in primary school and yet to celebrate his eighth birthday.
“Mark just got a card this morning from Golden Vale Marts wishing him and all of us the best of luck this weekend,” his father Niall explains.
“He is hoping he will have to take Monday off school if we are still standing at that stage! He was too young to remember the first visit, so he’ll enjoy every second of this trip.”
Greyhounds have been a constant in Niall Doolan’s life in Clarina.
“We were reared with track dogs; my father Séan had two great bitches breeding, they fed and found us.”
But Niall was also involved in coursing in various guises: A link to the Irish Cup meeting with County Limerick Coursing Club (vice chairman), Landowners’ Coursing Club (secretary), and Regional Coursing Club (working member).
Then, in 2007, a friend, Pat Horgan, asked if he would rear a coursing dog. That was Breska More.
“He was our first coursing dog and he won a trial stake at our local Regional Coursing meeting, then raised a couple of flags in Clonmel before being beaten by the favourite in the third round. The bug took hold then, coursing went on stream and the track dogs went out the door.”
“I never had a coursing dog in my own name, instead they go into my sons’ names. That is why Mark, and young Sam in time, are getting the cards.”
Comparing coursing and track is like apples and oranges for Doolan.
“Track is so different to coursing. Once you get into coursing, it is so hard to get out of it. It is like a bug.
“With track, you go in, run your dogs and come home. With coursing, there is a very social side; everyone is ringing and meeting up.”
He points to local coursing legend Michael Field to support his point.
“Michael was hugely successful on the track — he won the Derby — but it is all coursing now. Don’t ask me why, but people change, you just get into coursing and it is so hard to get out. I still have an interest in the track but not at the minute.”
Though this is big doggy country with a rich tradition of Clonmel qualifiers, Breska Lantern’s achievement is a huge source of pride.
“The phone is ringing every day from 8am to 9pm, especially this week, with people looking for news and updates.
“You get the usual congratulations but there is plenty of banter and winding up going on as well.”
Doolan, a dairy farmer on a picture-postcard setting, is a man well able for the ebb and flow of pub talk and praise. An impressive club hurling career with Ballybrown, which garnered him a few games and a league medal with a talented Limerick side, prepares you for the wit and wisdom that invariably comes your way in rural Ireland. It is an approach that still serves him well to this day.
“I’d be cool enough about Clonmel. I’m delighted to be there and it is great. It is an All-Ireland final that we are going down to and you are going down with a chance to win. There is more pressure when you have a fancied one, but I don’t have the pressure of being the trainer. Pressure is getting up every morning, going galloping, getting the work done, going out every day checking if everything is okay. I don’t have that hassle or worry at all.”
All that “hassle or worry” falls on Pat Curtin, a training guru who lives by the mantra that pressure is for tyres and bouncy castles.
Curtin — who also owns the successful Dandelion Bar and Club in Dublin — has been there since Doolan’s coursing conversion. It was a match made in heaven.
“I dropped out the dog [Breska More], rang him six weeks later and he said: ‘Your dog is good and he’ll win a trial stake.’ And he duly did a few weeks later.
“I leave it all to Pat. You have to trust your trainer. If you weren’t happy with him, the bitch wouldn’t be there. I trust Pat. He wants to win, I want to win, and we just hope for the best after that.
“All the pressure is on the trainer and Pat can take the pressure. He loves pressure. He wants to have the favourite wherever he is going. He wants the best and to be the best.”
Doolan makes no bones about who calls the shots: “At the start of the season you talk and set up a strategy, but the trainer ultimately tells you when they are ready.”
There were some tweaks and turns before Breska Lantern qualified for Clonmel. She came in season the week before Milltown Malbay, so their plans were put on hold by a couple of weeks. Curtin felt they would have “one or two chances” to run her mid-term. There was no argument from any of the stakeholders. Doon was pencilled into the diary.
“It was around her 7th/8th week [pupping time]. She ran well, but was beaten in the second course by Boshski, her sister, who is now quietly fancied at 14/1 for the Oaks. She was beaten fair and square, there was no excuses, but we were actually disappointed on the day because we thought she could not be beaten.”
The next throw of the dice came 10 days later at Tradaree and Niall wanted it known that he was proud to be representing the club at the National Meeting. Breska Lantern stormed through that weekend in Clare and even seasoned watchers were stunned.
“She was exceptional that weekend. There was nothing to touch her. Everyone there was amazed with her performance. My phone started ringing within minutes of her winning. We knew she could run, she is terribly well made. But she still had to go out and actually do it. So much can go wrong in coursing.”
With that, Doolan has a word of caution about Breska Lantern’s bid for glory in the Oaks.
“She is going to be short of gallops going down there. Because she came in season —- and her pupping time was up around January 7 — we didn’t gallop her until January 15.
“So she is only after five gallops heading to Clonmel, which will be a worry if she is lucky enough to be there on the last day.
“She will be fit enough for the first two days...
Why has Breska Lantern’s progression and favouritism been so well received?
“People are delighted for the small man to have a chance,” Doolan says. “The big boys expect to be there every year, with all the dogs they have. But it is tougher and tougher for the small man to come good. You never know when you will come across a good one. But if you don’t try to have a good one then you will never have a good one.”
The backstory to this fairytale is a mixture of friendship and luck.
Niall first met Lantern’s breeder Denis Guiney when the pair were in agriculture college in Pallaskenry. They kept in touch, kept together by those traditional rural glues: Farming, GAA and greyhounds. His bitch, Blades of Glory, caught Doolan’s eye a few years ago when running in the Champion Stakes in Clonmel.
“I asked him afterwards if there was a chance of a pup and, fair play to him, he never forgot me.”
Admittedly it wasn’t the most promising of starts. “He told me that she [Breska Lantern] was the last of the litter, but also the pick of the litter. Naturally, I asked why she hadn’t been picked by anyone else. ‘Because she’s blue,’ was the reply. And some people consider that unlucky.”
But Dinny was adamant. He was telling me ‘if I was picking, I would pick her’. And that was good enough for me.”
Guiney knows something special when he sees it. Incredibly, Breska Lantern is one of six from that litter heading to Clonmel this weekend, including Guiney’s own dog Blades of Hope, who runs in the Derby.
The journey for the Doolan family [Niall, wife Angela and sons Mark and Sam] will begin early on Saturday morning.
However, Niall is quick to point out that the leader of the cheerleaders will be his mother May, who will lead the 9am charge to Powerstown.
“It is a snapshot of Ireland that is gone in so many ways,” Niall explains. “There is a rivalry but there is little jealousy. Once they [an opponent] are out of contention, they will be wishing you the best. Ireland might be a fairly big country, but the coursing community is quite small. But there is a great sense of community and togetherness. If there is a coursing funeral anywhere in the country, you will see coursing people from every corner there. They might not know the family, but they will have known that man or woman who has died and will think nothing of sitting into a car for four or five hours to pay their respects.”
Doolan admits that breeding is the eventual plan for Breska Lantern, but not the immediate plan.
“I would like to run her next season. She can breed for rest of her life. The ultimate aim, if she was good enough, would be to run her in an Irish Cup which would be exceptionally hard for a bitch. The Irish Cup is just three miles away from us here in Clarina. There is a lot of history there. And I would love to be part of that.”
Firstly, though, he must deal with this Saturday. The exhilaration. The emotion. The expectation.
“We are not looking past the first round,” he whispers. “You just don’t look beyond that...”
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