Forces
James Leavey's Corner
A Day At The Dublin Races

FORCES - Link to James Leavey's Corner Main Page
by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey
For years I believed the only people who could make money at the races were the bookies. Until I ran the gauntlet of tinkers hawking fresh strawberries and the 'complete racing guide'at Leopardstown's turnstiles.

I'd just driven down to Ireland's premier racecourse from Belfast, on the day of the 1996 Grand National.It seemed like a good idea at the time.

"Ah go on now and buy one," urged a persistent crone with cunning eyes, waving a copy of Turform under my nose."It's my only living."

Then she read my name on the press badge."Would that be James Leavey, the great writer from across the water"" My South London demeanour and accent are difficult to miss.

"Speaking," I replied, admiring her cheek. "You've read all my novels""

"The lot.Sure you're writing in the footsteps of James Joyce," she said.Which was news to me as at that time my books were still inside my head, unpublished.

"Which is your favourite"" I asked.

"They all are."

That's when I gave in, and handed her the £3 for a copy of a cheaply printed 24 page booklet which I've scarcely glanced at since.

"You've just been taken, hook, line and sinker," commisserated the official as I passed through his turnstile."You should have kept walking."

But then I would have missed part of the charm of what many believe is one of the finest locations for horse racing in the world. Nestled in the capital's fashionable stockbroker belt about six miles from the centre of Dublin,Leopardstown racecourse is flanked to the south east by the Wicklow mountains and to the east by the Irish Sea.

Leopardstown has had some notable residents, visitors and neighbours in its time, but perhaps none more so than the celebrated writer and smoker, Samuel Beckett.He was born in 1906 in sight of the racecourse, which he immortalised in his two works, All that Fall.

I wish I had been there for Leopardstown Club'sinauguration meeting on Monday 27 August 1888. The day started inauspiciously enough with warm sunshine and gentle breezes and the organisers were confident that the combination of good sport and exquisite scenery would draw an enormous crowd.How right they were.

An estimated 50,000 descended on the sleepy village of Foxrock by road and rail.How many got to see the races was another matter.The gates at the main road entrance weren't wide enough for the press of horsedrawn carriages and the resulting traffic jams caused chaos.

Meanwhile, the three-foot wide bridge from Foxrock Station also proved unable to cope with the growing multitude descending from the trains.

If they survived the battle of the bridge the disgruntled, half-suffocated visitors then encountered the next bottleneck - inadequate turnstiles. The few peckish winners of the human steeplechase who managed to fight their way into the grounds were then told the caterers had run out of provisions and the races were starting 45 minutes late.

Days later, the outraged Freeman's Journal described the event as "a fiasco of the most extraordinary kind."It went on, "That a number of lives were not lost must be ascribed to a miracle rather than to any precautions on the part of the management."

Fortunately for Irish racing, Leopardstown's organisers made rapid improvements and the next two meetings went smoothly.The racecourse has since grown from strength to strength.Which proves the theory that when you start at the bottom, the only way is up.

After a quick tour, I headed forThe Goat, one of the track's ten smoker-friendly bars, and lunched on a basket of small sausages, french fries and tomato ketchup, washed down with a pint of Guinness and a Fox half corona.I could have dined on Dublin Coddle or something far classier, but there's nothing like Irish comfort food to keep you going through the afternoon.

Dr Michael Smurfit,Leopardstown Club's former chairman,filled some of the gaps in the club's history."Many of the world's most famous horses have won some great races here," he said,"including Cheltenham Gold Cup heroes Arkle, Cottage Rake and Dawn Run, Epsom Derby winners The Minstrel, Golden Fleece, and more recently, the highest earning Irish bred horse of all time, Theatrical.

"All of the great Irish trainers have left their mark on Leopardstown.>From 'Boss' Croker and F F McCabe in the early part of the century,to Tom Dreaper who in the forties, fifties and sixties had many of his great training moments here, including saddling Arkle to win three Leopardstown Chases.

"Seamus McGrath had great success down the years on this, his local course. More recently Vincent O'Brien has won all the major flat races here.The modern breed of Irish trainers such as Dermot Weld, Jim Bolger and many others are continuing this great work and contributing greatly to the track.By doing so they have enhanced Ireland's worldwide reputation as the foremost equestrian centre."

In 1969, Dr Paddy McGrath masterminded The Racing Board's purchase of the course and began the first phase of a plan to develop Leopardstown into a showcase for Irish racing. The stands and enclosures were rebuilt and the course itself improved.

For those of you who like to know these things, the round course is a lefthanded one mile six furlong circuit with a stiff uphill finish.An adjoining straight six furlong track hosts all sprint races.

"When the course re-opened in 1971 the public reaction was immediate and dramatic," added Dr Smurfit, while I sat back enjoying a half corona and half listening to the changing odds at Aintree from the bar's countless TVs.

"Attendances increased greatly and new sponsors were quickly found to help develop better racing and prize money."

Leopardstown's new stands can now accomodate over 20,000 racegoers in comfort.Ancicillary sports facilities include an 18-hole golf course, floodlit driving range, indoor and outdoor tennis, squash, a gymnasium and health club and swimming pools.

Seamus McGrath trained winners on a stretch of land at the back of the racecourse for many years:"For the spectator, Leopardstown passes muster with the best international racecourses," he said."You can see everything, the whole race.In the old days, the track wasn't everybody's cup of tea, although it was regarded as one of the best jumping courses in the country and all the top national hunt animals raced here."

Ireland's greatest steeplechase jockey and former national hunt rider extraordinaire, the late Pat Taaffe, ran some of his finest races at the Foxrock track.He once described Leopardstown as "undoubtedly the best steeplechase course in either England or Ireland."

It was time to wander outside and admire the parading horses."What are you looking for""I asked the pipesmoking gentleman from Killarney, on my left, who had the air of an informed punter. Perhaps he could help me pick a winner.

"I'm counting their legs," he said."If the horse has less than four I give it a miss.If it's got five or more I offer to buy it for the museum. Sure I learned all this as the result of betting on a nag that got a ticket for parking."

At 3pm, the stands emptied completely and I joined the excited gamblers who had gathered around every available television to watch the big race of the day - the Grand National.

"It's a small crowd today," said John Kelly, pouring drinks in the downstairs bar with his eyes on the TV screen."Most of the regulars are in Aintree.Still, I'd rather be here cheering them on than sitting at home by the fire."

I asked if he could provide a Nebuchadnezzar of Moet & Chandon, to celebrate my winnings, which I hoped were imminent."We've only got magnums at £45 a bottle," he said."But there's plenty to go round, don't worry. It'll go nicely with a Havana cigar."

The only personleftinside the stand was a bookmaker, leaning forward on his chair by the rail, watching the National on a TV somewhere high above through a pair of binoculars.A big satchel of money hung over his shoulder and he looked unhappy.Maybe because the track's computerised tote system, one of the most advanced in the world,had eaten into his profits.Such is the price of progress.

As my horse loped in at fifth place after leading the field for most of the race, I remembered Paddy Hennigan, a former racing correspondent for the Irish Times.He once told me that whatever you win on the races should be treated with a healthy disrespect."It's not real, just fairy money," he advised, "and should be spent immediately on a luxury you would not have otherwise bought."Such as a large box of Cohiba Esplendidos.

With today's luck chance would be a fine thing.At 5pm I left the track slightly poorer, but none the worse for all that. After all is said and done, I'd enjoyed my first fine day at the Dublin races.

Copyright James Leavey, 1997.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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