It has gone down in racing history as one of the most unlikely yet successful comebacks, and it all started at Tipperary.
After five years out of the professional saddle, Lester Piggott was cajoled in 1990 into riding in a charity race alongside the likes of Jonjo O’Neill and others at Tipperary Racecourse and few could have guessed at the time how influential that charity spin would prove.
Chairman at Tipperary, Tim Hyde, takes up the story: “He stayed with me that night and went to see Vincent [O’Brien] the next morning and had a chat with him, and it started from there.”
Before too long, Piggott was back riding again, riding winners again and producing that unforgettable finish on Royal Academy to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile less than a fortnight after his official comeback.
All part of the rich fabric of stories that have been woven since the days in autumn 1916 when horse racing was first staged at Limerick Junction, as Tipperary racecourse was known until 1986, within sight of the busy railway station and nestling against some of the most picturesque of Golden Vale scenery.
That charity race from 1990, when Jonjo and Lester — first names only needed for such a pairing — filled the first two spots home, is duly remembered in a new Centenary Gallery which was officially opened last night.
To those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting this corner of Irish racing, Tipperary may not sound like the most auspicious of venues, but just passing through that gallery is a reminder of how many true legends of racing have graduated from its academy.
Stars of National Hunt like The Thinker, who won in Tipperary in 1985 and went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup two years later; Solerina, Captain Cee Bee, Harchibald, Rebel Fitz; Flat superstars like Dylan Thomas who won his maiden here in 2005 and won the Arc in ’07; Casamento for Michael Halford and Godolphin in 2010 and the famous Ballydoyle duo of High Chaparral and Hawk Wing, who both emerged from maiden company at the track before fighting it out in the Epsom Derby in 2002.
Speaking of Ballydoyle, fittingly the late great Vincent O’Brien who set up shop just down the road at Ballydoyle on the far side of Cashel and Rosegreen and ended up winning so much both here and everywhere else, has his own section of the gallery.
“Vincent loved it here, you know,” as Hyde puts it.
One of the oldest photos of the exhibition is from 1944 and features a young Vincent leading home a winner, the well-named Good Days, ridden by Joe Mitchell.
Where it began for Tipperary Racecourse, as documented by racing historian and writer Guy Williams, was in 1913 when Stephen Grehan, Charles Moore and JJ Parkinson let it be known they had secured an option on 190 acres, along with a proposed capital investment of £20,000 (€25,400), “on a promise of a special railway siding from the Great Southern & Western Railway”.
The name Limerick Junction, apart from relating to the nearby station, distinguished the venue from the local Barronstown track which went under the “Tipperary” banner at the time.
After a few years of preparation, not helped by the abandonment of racing generally across Ireland for some months in mid-1916 after the Rising, the first meeting went ahead on September 16, 1916, followed by another in October.
The plan was initially to cater for both National Hunt and Flat horses and that has remained the case in the intervening 100 years.
Looking at the neat, attractive, amenity-filled venue now in its 100th year, it’s easy to forget the track came within an ace of closing back in 1999.
The Friends of Tipperary, led by now-chairman Hyde, came together in December of that year and took a five-year lease from HRI to prevent what seemed imminent curtains; brought in Peter Roe (now manager at Fairyhouse, while the progressive Andrew Hogan is in charge in Tipperary) to run the ship, saw things turn around and go back into the black, and ensured that celebrations like last night’s could happen.
Ironically, those cloud-filled days coincided with the best of times — the Istabraq era.
The triple-Champion Hurdle winner was owned by JP McManus, trained by Vincent O’Brien’s Ballydoyle successor Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Charlie Swan, one of last night’s guests of honour.
Istabraq won a couple of times at Tipperary during his brilliant career while Swan himself had no little success at the course.
“It’s always been very lucky for me,” he said. “Riding those good horses obviously makes it a lot easier. It’s always a fair track and the ground is always well-maintained.”
And Istabraq? “I rode some good horses, but he was definitely the best.”
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