Friday 24 March 2017

Nicola Anderson : A first among equines in the heartland of racing

The queen was in her element inspecting the thoroughbreds of Co Kildare, writes Nicola Anderson

Nicola AndersonNicola Anderson

The queen watches Sophie Ralston (18) testing out a racing simulator; below, Sir Anthony O'Reilly and Health Minister James Reilly during the visit to the stud. getty; frank mcgrathThe queen with Lady Chryss O'Reilly at the National Stud yesterday. Frank mcgrath

EVEN the horses seemed to recognise that Queen Elizabeth was on home turf, whinnying a greeting and pawing the ground as she passed by.

Among thoroughbreds and jockeys, horseshoe demonstrations and immaculate green pastures, the keen horsewoman came into her own yesterday, visibly relaxed, as she spent a few happy hours sampling the delights of the sport of kings.

With a visit to the equine heartlands of the Curragh top of her must-see list during her Irish visit, the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were in excellent form yesterday as they arrived at the Irish National Stud in Tully, Co Kildare.

They did a tour of the facility -- which promotes Irish bloodstock and provides services to horse breeders -- before the queen set off alone on a private visit to the Aga Khan's Gilltown stud near Kilcullen.

Irish horseracing and the English royal family go back five centuries, when Henry VIII sanctioned the first-known race between English and Irish horses -- a challenge taken up by Gerald Fitzgerald, the Ninth Earl of Kildare.

The Queen Mother had a life-long love of steeplechasing, with a total of 449 winners (her first being the Irish-bred Monaveen), making her the most successful horseracing royal since the time of Queen Anne.

Never having made it to Ireland herself, the trip to the Curragh must have meant all the more to her daughter.

Even from under the brim of her hat, the twinkle in the queen's eye and her beaming smile could not be hidden from view as she arrived at the stud to warm and resounding applause. Dressed in cornflower blue, she was greeted with a curtsy by the chairperson of the board of the Irish National Stud, Lady Chryss O'Reilly, in a taupe silk and linen suit.

She was then greeted by chief executive officer John Osbourne, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, Health Minister James Reilly and Minister of State Shane McEntee.

The prince followed behind, shaking hands heartily.

From there, the couple went to inspect a salute by four riders from the Army Equitation school, and then met Johnny Murtagh, who explained the workings of the Racing Academy and Centre for Education.

It was there they spent most of their time, enjoying a meeting with young jockeys and watching a demonstration of Henry, the racing simulator, with Mr Murtagh joking that, in his day, jockeys had practised on a bale of hay.

The simulator was a new concept to the queen and she was greatly interested in it, Lady O'Reilly revealed later.

Trainee jockey Sophie Ralston (18) from Craughwell, Co Galway, on board Henry, said afterwards that she had enjoyed meeting the queen, who was "very nice and kind" and who had been "enthusiastic and genuinely interested" in what the youngsters had to say.

"She wanted to know what we were getting up to," she said.

The queen had stressed to organisers before her arrival that she wanted some time to chat informally with some of the young people involved in the stud's operations.

With the happy chink of a blacksmith's hammer, a demonstration by the Irish School of Farriery followed, and then the royal visitors talked with students from the stud-management course.

The queen spent a while peering with fascination at the remarkably fragile structure of Arkle's skeleton -- one of the top attractions at the stud -- before going to the stallion yard to view Amadeus Wolf and Invincible Spirit, which sired one of her own horses, General Synod.

Here, a moment of sadness crept in, as just a few days before one of the stud's most prized stallions -- the snow-white Verglas -- had died, which had also been selected to be shown to the queen.

Trainer Willie Mullins yesterday described the 17-year-old as a "fantastic stallion" whose death would be a big loss to the National Stud.

"It's unfortunate timing and hard to replace great horses like that," he said.

The queen's last task was to unveil a bronze sculpture dedicated to the champion thoroughbred racehorse Sea the Stars, designed by Anthony Scott, which the queen declared "very ingenious".

Lady O'Reilly thanked the queen for her gracious and historic visit and for her ongoing support for Irish horse breeding. "You will always be welcome here," she said, wishing her luck with Carlton House -- the royal horse that is the favourite in the upcoming Epsom Derby.

Then, to warm and extended applause, the queen seemed to almost regretfully take her departure, although she rubbed her hands vigorously against the cold once back in the warmth of her Range Rover.

The visit went "brilliantly", declared Sir Anthony O'Reilly, president emeritus of Independent News and Media, who was there with his wife and who said the queen had displayed her genuine interest in all matters equine.

The royal visit to Ireland, overall, had been "enormously elevating for Ireland", Sir Anthony said, adding that the nation had hosted the queen with style and warmth.

"The Garden of Remembrance was a magnificent moment," he said.

"It's wonderful that she got to do something she enjoys," said Lady O'Reilly, adding that the visit brought great attention to Irish horse breeding and was a "wonderful advertisement" for the racing industry.

The queen had been "genuinely curious" in the stud's operations and had got on wonderfully with the young people, she added.

Irish Independent

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