Byrnes yard keep faith in anxious times
The recently deposed favourite for the Champion Hurdle breezed past us. Handy Solwhit ambled so rhythmically, almost like a rocking horse on the go, that it seemed his hooves hardly touched the gallops.
His rider Keith Chous called out to trainer Charles Byrnes. "There wasn't a cough out of him."
"Ah but he coughed this morning," replies Byrnes as much for our benefit as the jockeys.
Solwhit was sick during the week and it seemed certain that he would not run in next Tuesday's Champion Hurdle. There were some who doubted if the horse was ill at all. But he was, he was. The vet from the Ballybrown Clinic scoped him and shone a light down Solwhit's throat all the way to his lungs. The dirty, greenish-brown mucus told its own story.
Solwhit was put on antibiotics. Because there were millions at stake in betting, Byrnes informed the racing public that Solwhit might not run. This was no trick to get a better price. The money is down for a while now.
It's well known that Charles Byrnes loves a gamble. He didn't lick it off the road. "My father and my uncle often gave the bookies a right milkshake," he says, smiling as he thinks back on it.
When we came in to the yard, the horse was on the horse-walker, warming up for his leisurely lope along the six furlong all-weather gallop.
Charles stops the walker and takes Solwhit by the reins. He is joined by Weapon's Amnesty, another festival hopeful.
Keith Chous leads Pittoni out of his bedroom. There's a blue ball in the horse box. "Is he a footballer?" I ask. "He's a stallion -- kicking the ball takes his mind off things." Now we know why football was invented.
Pittoni is entered for the four-year-old championship, the Triumph Hurdle. He had "a leg," explains the trainer. "We'll decide soon whether he'll go or not, but he's looking good. At 25/1, Pittoni is a bit of value."
The sun shines down on the gallops from above Knockfierna, '848 feet -- 52 short of a mountain'. The fields are summer brown, there's a shine off Solwhit's coat
"It's been a tense few days," says Charles. He's been on cough watch all week. You prepare a horse all his life for the big one. He picks up a niggle or a chill a few days before and that's it. There's no back door in racing.
For a while, it looked as if Forpadydeplasterer might not run in the Champion Chase. He suffered a stone bruise on his foot and drifted to 1,000/1 on Betfair, but trainer Tommy Cooper got to work on him.
'Paddy', as they call him, didn't know what price he was and recovered. Tommy's yard, like the Byrnes' stable, is an equine B&B.
Last year, Tommy tipped Paddy for us to capture The Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at 12s.
This year, Paddy is up against the greatest two-mile chaser of all time -- the odds on favourite Master Minded, champion of England and the world.
We call to see Paddy at Farmer's Bridge just outside Tralee. Head lad Brendan Walsh is as welcoming as ever. He heads off busy, busy, busy. Paddy has sand on his handsome face.
"He rolled around four times on Banna Beach this morning and then he had a paddle. He has the perfect temperament. He never lets the excitement get to him," says Tommy Cooper.
Donal O'Connor, the stable amateur reminds us of Tommy's other runner, Son Amix. The blue cheese grey goes in the Fred Winter Novice Handicap on St Patrick's Day. Son Amix is 14/1 at the moment. Tommy's son Brian has the ride. The young lad is a good jockey and his mount is well worth a punt. We ask Tommy about the tactics for the big one.
"Paddy will take him on," he says quietly, "and if Master Minded has gone back a bit, we might just get there."
Win or lose, Cooper will come home immediately after racing. Tommy has another business. He makes and repairs false teeth.
An hour or so before Ireland run out onto Croker today, the vet will ask Solwhit to open wide. The scope will show whether or not mucus is in his airwaves. Hughy and Clodagh Martin, Solwhit's part-owners, will wait for the news from Co Limerick.
Charles' mother Mary is housebound and unable to get to church. She will rack up a legion of Holy Marys on her rosary beads. Jockey Davy Russell is waiting too. He daydreams of the Irish roar in the winner's enclosure. Russell knows that horses like Solwhit come along maybe once in a lifetime.
And as Charles, the stable staff, and the vet peer down into little Solwhit's inner sanctum, we wonder what it is they will see.
Here's hoping they see nothing at all.