Monday was the run-in, the day when every Trial Stake winner during the regular season got their few minutes in the sun as the Oaks and Derby fields were each reduced from 64 to 32; Tuesday, however, yesterday, was the day of attrition. Second round in the morning, third round in the afternoon, Oaks and Derby , the numbers whittled mercilessly down to eight in each. Regardless of what happens today, the last day of the meet, getting through to Wednesday is the first ambition of every owner and trainer that makes it to Clonmel.
Now they’re in the serious money, €1,000 euro already guaranteed to the eight still standing in both feature events, that money increasing incrementally with each round, the winner ending up with a hot €35,000.
It’s not just the cash, however; now they are with the select few – they have been through the mill of the first two days, and they have survived. Getting to Clonmel is one boast among coursing people, getting to the third day is quite another, a boast that will hold its lustre forever.
There are those who come to Clonmel for the three days every year anyway, regardless of whether or not they have any dog qualified, regardless even of whether or not they have a dog, period. Coursing is their chosen sport, these are the All-Ireland finals, this is their time to take a break from life’s tedium. For those with an ‘interest’, however, getting to the Wednesday is something special.
Well, such an individual is Ciarán McKenna, from nearby New Inn. Ciarán had a direct involvement yesterday in four runners, Ougham Miss and Beautiful Smile in the Oaks, Catunda Ashmore and Call The Gaffer in the Derby.
In order to be in Clonmel he needed special permission, but that was obtained – Ciarán was adamant, no obstacle was going to stand in his way, and so… “My father went to the school principal and said, “Can Ciarán have the three days off for Clonmel?” The principal said, “Yeah, I’d like to be going myself – he’ll learn more there than here!”
Ciarán, you see, is just seven years old, is a son of the top track and coursing trainer Owen McKenna, and like so many other youngsters who make Clonmel such an annual joyous family affair, is already in love with coursing, is already actively involved with the dogs.
For several minutes before each course in which the four dogs were involved, Ciarán was up at the top of the field, with Damien Lonergan and the others from the McKenna kennels who were doing the catching. And already, even at that age, he was the star, the entertainer. “I fancy The Gaffer,” he confidently predicted, when asked who was most likely to make it through to the last day, “He always runs brilliantly!”; this, eventhough The Gaffer would have to beat stablemate Catunda Ashmore in the afternoon – luck of the draw.
Ciarán was wrong, but only just – Catunda got up by a length, and so carries the hopes of the McKenna kennels into today. According to Damien, however, Ciarán had sound basis for his prediction. “The Gaffer was always that bit faster in training but Clonmel is a different story – the hill! We thought the black fella (Catunda) would be in front and the fawn fella would catch him, but it worked out the opposite, the fawn was in front, the black fella passed him out, ran on strong at the top of the field. He’s running well, hopefully he’ll stay going.”
Another who was taking a break from school was another Ciarán, Connelly from Galway . “I’m supposed to be doing the Mocks (Leaving Cert) this week but I said I’m coming here. I love the coursing, wasn’t going to miss this, but I’ll be back to school on Thursday, with more Mocks to do, another week of them.”
Minutes after we spoke Ciarán was bringing in Early To Work, who had left it too late against the dangerous Sullane Sign, lost a cracking buckle. Worth it now Ciarán? “Oh it’s worth every minute of it! We’ve still got Geneser Trail and Siena Steel in the Derby.”
They were going in the first two courses of the Derby in the afternoon, one after the other, and the athletic Ciarán was busy, one mad 100m dash out the field after another, to catch the dog before he headed back downfield. First came Geneser Trail, lost to Scotch Action, a dog that’s quietly gaining momentum. “Get up big fella!” shouts his catcher John O’Sullivan, and Scotch Action is indeed an impressive specimen. “Thanks, big fella,” perhaps John might whisper, as he again corrals a winner, but is this another Big Fella Thanks, famous champion from 1999? Time will tell.
Next up for Ciarán Connelly, however, was the hotly-fancied Siena Steel and with a super surge on the hill, he took the flag. “He’s a good one,” says Ciarán, as confident as his younger namesake, “Bought for ten grand during the year. We’ll be doing our best now and hopefully, tomorrow – you never know.”
You never know indeed, but another who is equally confident is Owen Browne, catching Patsy Byrne’s Sandy Sea for trainer Pa Fitzgerald, another hot fancy. “I’m like the corner-man,” he explains, “Doing the catching, bringing on the water, the rags, the bits and pieces. Pa is the trainer, he takes only the elite – he has the pick of the vine!.” No towel in Owen’s tool-box, however, no quit here, no surprise either that they’ve made it this far. “None!” says Owen. Question though – can Sandy go all the way? “Yes, hopefully.”
Confidence, and hope, that’s the order of the day on Super Tuesday in Clonmel. Martina Ryan was another with plenty of both, after her Dale Andretti and Damien McHugh’s Foxhill Rio had made it through in the Oaks. One problem for Martina, however – “We expected to get this far, but Brendan Farrelly is training both of them and we’re meeting each other in the morning.” A pity, but again, luck of the draw.
The ground might be a bit soggy, the hares a bit ropey (a lot of free runs up the field yesterday by those deemed unworthy to course by the slipper, a lot of worn-out greyhounds too as many of those hares who did run continued to twist and turn even within yards of the escape), but the coursing was always top-class. Now down to the elite, how much better can it get?