OBITUARY: Tommy Carberry - Celebrated Irish jockey and trainer

Colm Greaves remembers Tommy Carberry. the who’s "belief that the candle could be burned at both ends never interfered with his sense of duty to a commitment"

L'Escargot, with Tommy Carberry up, for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, March 1971. Pic: Victor Drees/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Time has a sneaky way of bending memory, and one of its more effective tools is the use of colour and light. Recall the 1960s for instance and its odds on that the sky is blue and the days are bright and shiny.

Now let your mind’s eye wander forward a decade to the 70s and everything seems just a little bit grey and grim.

Grey and grim it certainly was at Aintree on the first Saturday of April 1975. Back then, the course wasn’t quite the spray-tanned pleasure palace we know and love today, and even though the local hero Red Rum was a short priced favourite to claim his third successive National, a very sparse crowd had turned up to witness history.

The weather was dark and overcast, the field a lot smaller than usual and even the ground that day was depressingly described as “dead”.

Tommy Carberry was aboard L’Escargot whose racecourse performances in the previous four seasons was starting to bring awkward reminders of the English translation of his name — the snail. Twice a winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup at the outset of the decade, L’Escargot had won only one race since his last triumph in 1971.

Now 12 years old, he was at base camp for a fourth and final assault on jump racing’s most notorious peak. Earlier that season, Carberry had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Ten Up as well as the Irish National on Brown Lad and if he could add the National to this lucrative pile, it would complete a single season treble never before achieved.

He spent the first circuit cautiously finding space and safety and although he had to cling on tightly to his horse’s neck once or twice, it was almost predestined that it would come down to the big two at the business end of the contest. And so it did.

When he came upsides Red Rum at the third last, L’Escargot’s massive chestnut frame, long lobbing stride and garish headgear made it look a skirmish between a war horse and a pony. From the saddle, it looked like a battle between art and agriculture. Brian Fletcher on Rummy with his longer stirrups, thrusting legs, busy arms and anxious countenance. Carberry, peaceful, unhurried, riding fearlessly short over jumping’s most dangerous fences, looking as though he was just waiting to press the turbo button at the furlong pole on a brilliant miler.

Tommy Carberry died last week after a lengthy illness, close to where he was born 75 years earlier on what were then the vast rural plains of east County Meath but are now anxiously in sight of the creeping suburbs of West Dublin. A natural horseman, his future was always to be in racing and he left the family at 15 for an apprenticeship with Jimmy Lenehan, for whom he rode his first winner on Ben Beoch in 1958 and won the flat apprentice title in 1959.

He moved on to Dan Moore’s jumping stable a year later where he soon became the stable jockey and he cemented the grand alliance by marrying the trainer’s daughter, Pamela. Racing historians will judge this union as a truly blessed one. It was the creation of an equine dynasty, with each of their six resultant children being almost as brilliant on horseback as the next.

He was stable jockey there for over two decades. He rode his first winner at Cheltenham for Dan Moore on Tripacer in the 1962 Supreme Novice Hurdle and his last on The Brockshee in the Arkle Trophy 20 years later for Dan’s son Arthur who had by then taken over the licence. In between these two winners, there was all manner of mastery, mayhem, and madness.

Mastery on the 16 winners he rode at the festival and over a thousand overall, three Gold Cups among a long list of Grade One victories. Mayhem when his fourth Gold Cup winner, Tied Cottage, was controversially disqualified for a doping infringement in 1980. And madness on the many of the occasions when the famously sociable Tommy enthusiastically entered the spirit of the late-night revelries at the festival. But his enjoyment of the convivial and his belief that the candle could be burned at both ends never interfered with his sense of duty to a commitment.

One Munster trainer recently recalled an occasion when he had booked Carberry long in advance to ride a fancied runner at Limerick in a three-mile handicap chase on the day after the Cheltenham festival had concluded.

When he arrived at the course, he found Tommy sleeping off the after effects of a successful week in Gloucestershire and there was grave indignation among the connections who had already had their money down.

After about a gallon of strong coffee he made his way to the parade ring only to slip off the other side of the horse when legged up. Despite his unsteadiness, his natural talent and instinct kicked in and he stayed secure in the saddle to win handily while those around him laboured to finish.

A wiry, durable jockey, he was versatile enough to win Group One races on the flat in the 1970s for Vincent O’Brien but retired from the saddle in 1982 after suffering a bad injury in a fall at Listowel and immediately started to train in Rathoath, Co. Meath.

Although he saddled hundreds of winners his second career will always be defined by Bobbyjo, winner of the Irish National in 1998 and the English equivalent a year later.

The brilliance of his children, particularly Paul, Nina and Philip, was an enduring source of pride to Carberry and it was never more acute than when Paul, (possibly an even greater genius than his father) landed the gamble on Bobbyjo at Aintree. It had been exactly 24 years since the last Irish winner and the victory precipitated a week of wild celebrations.

That last Irish winner was still back in 1975 and is now matching strides with Red Rum from the back of the third last. L’Escargot was clearly travelling much the better but in the white heat of battle in the most important race of the year, Carberry passed his time calmly with long looks over his shoulder and the odd tug of the reins to make sure his old warrior didn’t go for home early enough to risk a last furlong fade.

It was as if time was bending again and he was signaling to future Paul exactly how to ride the mercurial hurdler Harchibald three decades later.

He loosened his grip after the last, L’Escargot ambled clear and Tommy Carberry had bagged his elusive treble.

And for just a couple of minutes the sky turned blue and that grey and grim 1970s Aintree day was bright and shiny.



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