For most Irish sport lovers, probably the most romantic story of 2013 was the All-Ireland senior hurling championship win by Clare, a precocious and mercurial side guided by a precocious and mercurial management team, led by Davy Fitzgerald.
There was another story though, off the beaten track and thus missed by most of the mainstream media but – arguably – a story even more romantic.
For over 30 years Billy Kehoe has had a love of greyhounds, a passion inherited from his late parents, Andy and Agnes. In that 30 years there was never a week that Billy didn’t have a dog by his side, walking and galloping, rubbing and feeding, washing them down, cleaning out their bedding, a lot of valuable time and a lot of scarce hard-earned cash invested for little or no return, but none of it begrudged. “I learned a long time ago – you don’t go into sport for money, you go into it for the love of that sport.”
Last year though, everything changed for Billy Kehoe. It started in March 2012 with the purchase of a coursing greyhound from the kennels of Rachel Wheeler in Golden, in Tipperary, an unproven two-year old with potential but with no wins on his record; it ended less than a year later when that dog, Carricktobin Lad, won the Irish Cup in Patrickswell and with it the biggest cash prize in coursing, €80,000. In between – well, we’ll let Billy tell the story in his own colourful fashion.
“I had a lot of track dogs over the years, all me life, but this was me first coursing dog. Since we were chaps we’d be going to Enniscorthy coursing and I always loved it. But, to be honest, I never could afford a dog. I’ve been involved with the Enniscorthy coursing club down the years, was doing flag steward for a while, and the bug was there. I managed to put a few pound together, I found this fella (Carricktobin) on the computer he was for sale for €800 — I got him for €560 from Rachel.”
Billy is from Enniscorthy, lives in a new estate but in an end house – not by accident. “I walked into this place with Bernie (his sister) and I knew immediately, with the extra bit of ground beside the house this was perfect for me. I lived with my mother and the last house we were in, you had to go through a long hall, one door, two door, three doors to the back-kitchen, then door four to the backyard — I used to come through there every day with seven dogs!”
By now we’ve been joined by that same Bernie, kettle on the boil, but hearing this she throws her eyes to heaven – “I used to nearly cry when I saw the muck!”
“There was a problem though,” continues Billy, “This house was already sold. Luckily though the buyer pulled out; I made my move, paid an extra €10,000 for the bit of extra land but it’s invaluable to me. Over the years then I spent several thousand concreting the yard, a bog when I came in; I built all the walls, the kennels complete with covered open-air walking space for the dogs, a stainless steel sink and food preparation area, and Bernie’s husband made the gates for me.”
Everything in place, now began the training process and almost immediately, the kind of problems so familiar to all coursing people. “After I bought Carricktobin I had him here for the whole summer. I got him ready for a Trial Stake but he got a cough, set him back seven or eight weeks.” Luckily for Billy that setback was only temporary; even more luckily, he soon found that he had a live prospect on his hands.
“I got him ready again, was running him in Waterford in the Urbs Intacta (a prestigious All-Aged Stake). I had him checked with the vet, his bloods were only 58 – if he was peaking you’d be looking for 63/64. The vet said: ‘Give him a run, maybe two, loosen him up and we’ll try to get him a Cup somewhere else.’ He had his first run, ran well, won; had his second run and was flying, won again. I rang the vet and told him. ‘If you want to carry on, carry on,’ he said. We did and he won the Cup in flying fashion, 17 spots faster than anything else on that field and his bloods only 58!”
Something special indeed. That was in late October 2012 and just a few months later Billy was in Patrickswell – the Irish Cup. First though, a problem – the entry fee. “It was €425 and I had to go and borrow that €425, to the credit union in Dublin from work (he’s a plate-layer, 16 years with CIE, moving track, change sleepers, night-work) — I couldn’t get any more from the local credit union! There were days here I had nothing, but the dog would get fed. I’d always pay me bills, the mortgage and so on, then the dog’s feed, that was always first before I’d worry about meself. If I’m hungry I can always knock on a neighbour’s door – the dogs can’t.”
At which Bernie interjected – “My mother used to say, if you had four legs and a tail around here you’d be well looked after! Sure he lives, eats, sleeps, dreams dogs.”
After a tough opening round Carricktobin Lad simply romped through the rest of the field, a most handsome winner of a most handsome gold cup and a most handsome cheque. “I’d like to thank Noreen and JP McManus (sponsors) for all they’re doing for coursing, and that’s a great pool of money they’re putting in. It meant an awful lot to me, that win, it changed my life around 100 times over. The money alone was huge, I was able to turn around and pay a few debts, but the Cup was what it was all about, that meant a lot more to me and it showed too that the small-timer can win the big one.”
There was more to it too than met the eye, says Bernie. “He was very lucky but that was my mother looking after him. She was only gone a few months when he won, I believe she was on his shoulder that day. She would have been so proud of him – she was always a great woman for the greyhounds, we firmly believe she was on that dog’s back.”
A great story then but here’s the thing – it’s not over yet. A few months ago Carricktobin Lad won yet another prestigious Stake, the Loch Gorman Cup (“On my mother’s anniversary,” Billy points out) and today, unbeaten since Billy starting training him (14 courses, 14 flags), he’s back in Patrickswell, bidding to become the first dog since Lusty More in 1976 to defend the Irish Cup, only the third since the first running in 1905. Romance? Absolutely, and even if Billy and Carricktobin don’t manage to repeat, who’s to say what new story will be written? <
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