Monday 26 September 2016

Ireland's Sulky Racers - 'some numpties might complain about the horse porn and language but this is an exceptional documentary'

Ireland's Sulky Racers, Thursday, RTE2, 9.30pm

Pat Stacey

Published 15/10/2015 | 14:42

Ireland's Sulky Racers, RTE2
Ireland's Sulky Racers, RTE2

There I was yesterday morning at about nine o’clock, watching a preview of tonight’s Reality Bites documentary Ireland’s Sulky Racers, when suddenly — wham, bam, thank you, man! — I’m hit smack in the face by a gratuitous display of horse porn.

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A stallion is enthusiastically mounting a mare, his hooves clip-clopping excitedly. It’s like watching Buckaroo performing Riverdance.

Graphic? Dear lord! Put it this way, I’m glad I never invested in that widescreen 3D TV. I might be missing an eye now.

It was a bit early in the day for that class of a thing. Put me right off my sausage and white pudding breakfast roll, it did.

I’m kidding, of course. About the breakfast roll. I had cornflakes for breakfast yesterday. The horse porn, though, that was real.

Seriously-seriously this time, I imagine there’ll probably be a handful of numpties watching tonight who really will be offended and will complain about the scene.

Ireland's Sulky Racers, RTE2
Ireland's Sulky Racers, RTE2

They might complain about the strong language too, and maybe even about the whole film.

“Spending my licence fee on this rubbish ... ” grumble, grumble, grumble ... “animal cruelty” ... grumble, grumble, grumble ... “blocking up the roads” ... grumble, grumble, grumble ... “illegal and dangerous”  ... grumble, grumble, grumble  ...

They’d be right about one thing: sulky racing is illegal. It also looks dangerous, from a distance.

The opening shots of sulkies belting along a road early in the morning, followed by a convoy of cars and vans and 4x4s with fellas hanging out of the back and hanging out of the windows and opening their doors to make spectators getting perilously close to the action clear the way, would raise the hair on a bald man.

But there are equally illegal and far more dangerous things out there. Better a 14-year-old boy on this kind of horse than a 14-year-old boy shooting up the other kind of horse.

Once you get over your initial prejudices — and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t cursed and whinged and moaned and bitched about sulky racers as much as anyone else — you’ll be rewarded with an exceptional hour of TV.

Martin Danneels, who also directed the recent Reality Bites film Born Addicted, has crafted a terrifically absorbing and genuinely eye-opening documentary. An unexpectedly moving one too.

Nobody is more aware of the prejudices and the negative assumptions than the horse owners and sulky drivers (they’re not always one and the same) themselves.

People assume all sulky racers are “scumbags or junkies”, says a chap called Eddie, who’s the most frequent and visible presence in the film.

“It doesn’t make the racers look good,” he says. “I work five or six days a week, I pay my taxes and I have to pay for the training of my horse as well.”

The film explodes the myth that all sulky racers are members of the Travelling community. “It’s about 50-50 between Travellers and settled people,” says Eddie.

Another of the men (they’re not all impulsive young bucks with more testosterone than sense swilling around in their systems), Thomas, known as “Clarkey” to his friends, runs a funeral carriage business.

He provided the firm’s services for free to the grieving family of a little girl who died aged just four.

Graham, a sulky driver who we see expertly shoeing a horse, says “people read the papers and get the wrong impression”. They don’t see the care and attention — I’d be inclined to call it love — that’s lavished on the horses.

Later on, Graham takes a horse for treatment at the Curragh Equine Rehabilitation Centre. “I was very nicely surprised with the level of care these guys give to their horses,” says William Hayes, who runs the Centre.

“Some of the racehorse people could learn a thing or two from them about how to look after their horses.”

To be honest, I went into Ireland’s Sulky Racers fully expecting to be unmoved and unpersuaded. I came out the other end feeling differently.

It has to be said that, illegal or not, the race meetings, held up and down the country and sometimes across the border, are a thrilling spectacle.

But the chances of the Government decriminalising sulky racing and giving the owners and drivers what they’d like — a two-mile straight track where they could race legally and safely — are as likely as me riding the next Irish Grand National winner.

On the surface, this is mainly a film about the love of horses. Bubbling just below, however, is a tale of rescue.

“Horses are a great distraction to take you away from the hard times in life,” says Dermot, who owns a horse called Sam and has clearly had some troubling experiences.

“Sam has done thousands of miles, he’s listened to thousands of problems, and he’s never spoken to anyone about them.”

A lovely moment that capped off a lovely documentary.

IRELAND’S SULKY RACERS, Thursday, RTE2, 9.30pm

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