Tuesday 26 September 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: A story to draw tears from a stone in a sport facing an uncertain future across the water

Astute Missile (No. 4) going on to win The English Greyhound Derby Final. Photo: Getty
Astute Missile (No. 4) going on to win The English Greyhound Derby Final. Photo: Getty

Eamonn Sweeney

Last weekend's English Greyhound Derby was all set up for a fairytale finale. You may remember the story of Clares Rocket, the wonder dog who was kidnapped back in December and subsequently recovered. Well, Clares Rocket had bounced back from his ordeal and progressed to the final of the world's richest dog race in imperious style

The dog, trained by Englishman Graham Holland in Tipperary, started the race as favourite. His only serious rival seemed to be Tyrur Shay, trained by Glenamaddy's PJ Fahy and accompanied by an enthusiastic and highly optimistic travelling support. Nobody looked beyond those two. The only reason you'd have looked at Astute Missile in trap four was to remark at his price. 28/1 in a six-dog race? What a no-hoper. The commentators mentioned how well he'd done to make it this far.

Round came the hare. The dogs broke and there ensued one of those schemozzles which can ruin the best-laid plans of dogs and men. Poor Clares Rocket found Astute Missile coming across from the outside and Droopys Acrobat coming up on the inside and got squeezed out of it. Third favourite Hiya Butt, owned by a butcher from Derry named Paul Ellis, burst into the lead with, of all dogs, Astute Missile on his heels.

On the third bend Astute Missile went one better and moved into the lead, but as they approached the final bend Tyrur Shay closed on him and made his big bid for victory. The race seemed to be run for the outsider but he found fresh reserves of strength and pace to stay on and win by three-quarters of a length. It was the greatest upset in Greyhound Derby history. Literally. No longer-priced dog had ever won the race.

I always like to see the underdog prevailing but my joy was slightly tempered by the fact that we'd been denied both the fairytale finish and an Irish-trained winner. What did I know? The minute I saw Astute Missile's trainer Seamus Cahill, I knew I was looking at a fellow Irishman. In fact he looked a bit like my late greyhound-training Uncle Ned. Ironically, the derby had been won not by an Englishman training in Tipperary but by a Tipperary man training in England, Cahill having left his native Mullinahone to train dogs in Kent a couple of decades ago. He'd always wanted to win the Derby and had finally managed it with this most unlikely dog. Unsurprisingly he seemed somewhat stunned.

But that wasn't all. The TV interviewer found Seamus's daughter Amy and asked what it meant to her. When Amy tried to talk about it, she almost broke down. It turned out that her sister Brig Cahill-Cronin had died of cancer just four weeks previously at the age of 29. Amy's interview would have drawn tears from a stone. Or at least from an aging sportswriter watching the race at home with his own daughters.

Brig Cahill had been bravely fighting non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for over a year and had married her sweetheart David Cronin in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin a few days before she died. It's one of those stories that would break your heart. She had worked at Bridgewater House in Clonmel helping people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues for eight years. There had been a 5K organised locally which raised over €4,000 which was going to be used to fund treatment in the UK and a trip to Lourdes in September. There were obviously a lot of people around Clonmel who cared for Brig Cahill-Cronin. She never did get to make the trip.

"I think Brig was rooting for us from above. The win gave a great lift to the whole family after what we have been through in the last few weeks," said her father.

"It was a very, very special night for the family. Brig had the date of the derby pencilled in and she was looking forward to being there but unfortunately she was not able to live to see the day."

The English Greyhound Derby is not what it was back in the days when huge crowds (92,000 in 1939) thronged White City to watch it. I can remember the great Ger McKenna's efforts to land the prize in the 1980s receiving plenty of coverage. Seamus Cahill's big night, on the other hand, went virtually unremarked here. The race itself was taking place outside London for the first time. That's because the Wimbledon track, its home since 1985, closed down this year. When I lived in the city I used to watch races at Wimbledon and at Catford and Walthamstow, which have also bitten the dust since the turn of the millennium.

Greyhound racing's London presence is now restricted to Romford and Crayford, which, to be honest, are in Essex and Kent rather than in the city itself.

The sport's race may be run in England. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would ban it as Tony Blair's administration banned fox-hunting. It would be a populist move against a sport disliked by animal rights campaigners and with a dwindling band of supporters. Greyhound racing in England may be in its twilight years.

But last Saturday night that great old sport enjoyed one of its greatest ever moments as a dog with no chance came through for a family with broken hearts. Remember the Cahills when the annual round-ups are being compiled. Remember them in your prayers.

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