What makes Wexford a horse county?

Day three of the festival and here we are, scrounging around for Irish winners.

Patriotic punters routinely have become accustomed to laying down their hard-earned on the likes of the Willie Mullins and Gigginstown yards but there is hope to be had from Wexford too.

In all, there are seven horses with ties to the county running this afternoon. Three alone — Ferdy Murphy’s Kalahari King, Paul Nolan’s Noble Prince and Poquelin, which is partnered by Daryl Jacob — will go in the Ryanair Chase today.

Murphy’s entrant may be trained in England but, hey, beggars can’t be choosers at this stage and a win or place for the man from Clonroche, who also has Divers running in the Byrne Group Plate, would be cheered as heartily as any other.

This time last year, the south-east county was to the fore in a memorable week for the Irish raiders, with trainers and jockeys alike soaking up both the celebrations and congratulations in the chaotic winners’ enclosure.

Murphy claimed a 10th festival winner with Divers in the Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase. Nolan, who hails from only a few miles further up the N30 in Davidstown, managed his first with Noble Prince in the Jewson Novices’ Chase.

Jacob, another native of Davidstown, registered his first March victory in Prestbury Park with Zarkandar in the JCB Triumph Hurdle and Jamie Codd picked up a second with Junior in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap on St Patrick’s Day.

Nor was that the extent of it.

Kitestown’s Liz Doyle had the pleasure of seeing two of her former charges, Al Ferof and Cheltenian, claim victories while fellow trainer Denis Murphy and jockey Barry O’Neill were other participants over the four days.

Long associated with hurling and strawberries, last year’s performances were evidence of the county’s long-standing equine tradition; one that embraces breeders, owners, hunting and show-jumping as well as jockeys and trainers.

Aidan O’Brien, Jim Mernagh, Jim Bolger, Conor O’Dwyer… the only problem with starting a list of who’s who in Wexford racing is that, like an Oscars acceptance speech, there will always be those left out.

Enniscorthy and its environs is a particular hotbed.

In 2009, a national report on the bloodstock and racing industry concluded that Wexford was in the top five counties for the number of registered trainers and jockeys.

At the time there were 17 horse trainers in the Enniscorthy area alone with yards that employed a total of 109 people.

There were 12 stud farms while the Gain Horse Feed company and local vets employed a grand total of 113 people.

The town of Enniscorthy was also home to a saddlery shop, a gallops and arenas assembler and a horse transport company. Big business, clearly, but it is one borne of a genuine love that stretches back through the generations.

Though born in Carlow, John ‘Jude’ Doyle has lived in Wexford since the 1960s and, as a director of the Irish Horse Board and chairman of All-Ireland Colleges Show-jumping, he is well-placed to get to the bottom of such entrenched roots.

“It just comes from a history of racing and horses and ponies,” said Doyle, whose Cloch Ban pub in Clonroche is a hub of activity on this, of all weeks.

“There is a perception that owning horses is elitist in most parts but not here in Wexford.

“There was a survey done a few years ago that found that the biggest density of horses and ponies anywhere in Europe is here and there is a saying that when you go to Wexford, there would be horses looking over every gate at you and a few looking under them as well.”

The reason?

Doyle spent 19 years as a horticulturist and will tell you it’s the grass. Donal O’Gorman, who had the pleasure of seeing Dabiroun, a horse he owned and Nolan trained to win the 2005 Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle, says it has to do with the limestone rock.

“When you look at the size of the area, it is just extraordinary,” says Liam Spratt, who commentates on GAA for local radio but is a long-time regular at Cheltenham. “I think, like a lot of places, that a lot of it comes from farming. It is ingrained into people.”

Spratt tells the story of how he used to ride his neighbours horses as a youngster and Aidan O’Brien, who hails from Poulpeasty, was much the same, in that he started off on his father’s ponies in the backyard.

Maybe it is just something in the water.

Whatever it is, it works.


The Menu was delighted to make recent mention of a new UCC postgraduate diploma in Irish food culture and is equally pleased to announce availability of two new bursaries for same.The Menu: Food news with Joe McNamee

More From The Irish Examiner