Published 06/03/2008 | 10:47
Did you hear the one about the group of Irish regulars who bought a horse and named it after the Taoiseach's friend? Well, if it wins at Cheltenham next week the joke won't be on them. Chris McGrath reports from a pub in Dublin
Pints seem to be multiplying like Hydra heads. Every time you finish one, another two mysteriously appear on the bar. Through a fog of faces and noise, Brian is saying something. "The thing is, over there you'll all be saying to each other: 'What's the matter with these people? Crazy bunch of Paddys. What kind of name is that to give a horse?' But people in Ireland will understand it at once."
Here's the other Brian now. Wants to introduce another of the lads involved in Forpadydeplasterer, the horse going over to Cheltenham next week. You shake hands. It seems this fellow used to play soccer at a fairly serious level. St Patrick's Athletic, midfield. Their Butch Wilkins, it was said, and not simply because of the coiffure. His name, almost inevitably, is Brian.
Perhaps they should have called their horse The Brians Trust instead. But then that is rather how Paddy became famous, or infamous, in the first place. There were two Paddy Reillys in Bertie Ahern's circle. For the avoidance of confusion, Bertie referred to one as Paddy The Plasterer. Far more homely, in fairness, than Paddy The Property Developer, which would apparently be more accurate nowadays.
Bertie, of course, is the Taoiseach. And Dubliners are agog over his evidence to the Mahon Tribunal, investigating the cash "dig-outs" he received from friends during his days as Finance Minister. While it seems the Finance Minister did not have a bank account, he did at least have some very good pals, glad to dig him out in times of trouble.
And, for all the cosmopolitanism of its boom years, Ireland remains a small enough country that Bertie's crowd easily overlaps with this bunch of middle-aged drinkers, here at The Goat, this institution of south Dublin social and sporting life. Bertie was apparently here himself after Christmas, on his way back from Leopardstown, where he had seen Forpadydeplasterer beaten for the only time in his career.
The horse had excuses - much like Bertie, it might be said - and last month was sent back up to Leopardstown from Co Kerry, where he is trained by Tom Cooper, and confirmed himself one of the big Irish hopes for the Cheltenham Festival. "You look at the picture of the last hurdle," says Seamus McHale, one of the partners, a property man. "Paddy's ears are perked, but the other horse has his flat - you can tell he's bollocksed. I can't wait to see Paddy over two and a half miles."
The link with Bertie is Charlie Chawke, owner of The Goat, and head of the syndicate of regulars who clubbed together to buy Forpadydeplasterer barely a year ago. Chawke, who testified to the tribunal that he had lent cash to Ahern, is also one of the owners of Sunderland Football Club. Blimey. They must shift a lot of stout in this bar.
Memorabilia, ranging from hurling statuettes to Jack Charlton's tweed cap, reflect the breadth of Chawke's sporting passions. He sits at the end of the bar, sipping mineral water, as a series of customers pay affectionate court. Four years ago, Chawke was shot in the leg during an armed robbery, here in the pub. He lost the leg, but his standing in this community has only grown since.
The place is packed out for The Goat's Cheltenham forum, one of dozens staged throughout Ireland during these final days before the Festival. Funds are being raised for Gaelic games in Wexford. As a result the panel is chaired by no less a man than Jim Bolger, a trainer feared across the Turf for the austerity of his habits. Yet here he is, pumping the purest bonhomie through the beery atmosphere.
One of the experts under Bolger's supervision is Ivan Yates, himself formerly a Minister of State, now a bookmaker. (British readers may wish to read over that last sentence again.) Yates is reckless enough to offer Forpadydeplasterer at 7-1, a point over the odds, for his likely race at Cheltenham next Wednesday, the Ballymore Properties Hurdle. Bolger pounces, faster than a rattlesnake, but not for the price. "Good to see he hasn't lost it since he was a politician," he says of Yates. "The only thing he wants to deal in is cash."
It will feel strange, for many of those involved in the horse, not to be here during the Festival. "As a rule we'd all be in here," says Brian O'Hagan, who works in insurance. "The bar will be three or four deep all week, and Charlie's such a great host. The atmosphere's electric. There's a bookmaker over the car park and after seven losers you can end up lashing it on the 5.50 race at Hereford. There would be some hard card games too. It's a good way of getting divorced. We did go to Aintree once, but ended up in a pub and sending out a man to sell our badges."
The idea of buying a racehorse was hatched in this room, a year ago last Sunday, when Leopardstown was abandoned and lunch transferred to The Goat. Among those present was Brian Cooper, a banking man. Word was sent back to his brother in Tralee: they wanted a horse, but not just any old horse. It had to be unnamed, and therefore unraced. And it needed ability worthy of the name they had in mind. With so many Irish jumping prospects sold off the racecourse, Tom Cooper had his work cut out to find a potential champion with no name. But fair play to the man, he found one.
According to his brother, Tom works even harder than his new patrons play. Like their late father, he divides his waking hours between racehorses and a dental laboratory. If Groucho Marx suddenly comes to mind, then reflect that four years ago Tom won one of the Festival's most competitive races, the Bumper, with his first runner at the meeting. She was another pub whip-round, just 20 grand that time, a mare named Total Enjoyment.
"But she was a total headcase," Brian Cooper recalls. "She won on 17 March. The celebrations went on until June or July, I can't recall. There was some charity function in Tralee, and she made an appearance in the hotel. Can you believe it? They got this nutcase of a mare into the foyer."
Sadly, Total Enjoyment never got beyond her maiden hurdle. On her own in a paddock, she got it into her head to jump over a gate, on to a road, and skinned her knee. The wound became infected and three months later she was dead of laminitis.
Cooper still has just 35 horses. "But we're so lucky to have Tom," says O'Hagan. "In that yard the horse gets royal treatment." There are no corresponding airs among the horse's owners, who include some candid novices in the racing game. "People a lot richer than us have been involved in an awful lot of horses with no success," O'Hagan adds. "We're just such an assorted group of lads: carpenters, electricians, you name it. A lot of lads who have grown up together. Charlie Chawke's been here 25 years, and I'd say we've been drinking here for the guts of 20."
One of the shares was splintered "around the piano", the customary resort of several Goat diehards. It was on this piano that the anthem was composed: "Nobody does it fasterer". "And a lot of credit for all this goes to Charlie," says Brian Gleeson, the former footballer. "We'd all be talking and bullshitting - but without him would we have got off our asses, and got such a diverse crowd together?"
In honour of Chawke - and John Ryan, who likewise invested in both horse and football club - Forpadydeplasterer's jockey wears the red and white stripes of Sunderland. It seems surreal to talk to a publican about a Premier League team, as though to any bloke in the bar, when he happens to be one of its owners.
So, Charlie - after everything you went through, the horror of the robbery and all - is Sunderland just a bit of craic as well? "We have a good few quid invested," he says, with mild reproof. "We'd like to see it pay off. But everyone is 100 per cent committed to the cause. Maybe I did think it was easy, after we won the Championship, but if so I realise now how naïve that was. It'll be difficult, but I'm confident we'll make up the points [to stay up].
"When we came up, I thought we had five or six players good enough for the Premier League, but it turned out that we didn't. We've had to build a whole new team. From a standing start, that's a huge ask. But I have utmost confidence in Roy Keane. His dedication, his focus is such that I can't see him not succeeding. He's never professed to know it all, but he's a winner."
And that, so it would seem, is the cardinal rule: surround yourself with winners. This is Chawke's very first horse, and next week he could well find himself trousering a prize sponsored by Ballymore Properties - whose owner is none other than Sean Mulryan, another of the flamboyant winners in Ireland's boom years, and another member of the Sunderland consortium.
"We've been very lucky with the horse," Chawke concedes. "But, in fairness, the message to the potential trainer was to go out and get one good enough for the name. Then the word came back: 'Charlie, this horse is a machine'. He cost 150 grand, and we had the 10th share to sell. And there were the guys round the piano. So I said: 'Hang it, let's get those guys in.' There must have been 50 of us the last day at Leopardstown, and we've all been loving the craic."
If Forpadydeplasterer were to do the business next week, few British bystanders would venture beyond the Celtic binge, beyond another barmy Irish celebration. But at home he would elaborate a parable of Irish public and sporting life.
To some, it might suggest a culpable indulgence towards the mysteries of wealth and influence. To others, however, he would reiterate better values: no to pretension or pomposity, yes to loyalty and laughter. Plastering over the craic, you might call it.
"The camaraderie has been brilliant," O'Hagan says. "The wives are all involved, the kids, their teachers are backing the horse. If he wins, I don't think anything could surpass the experience."
"But once he's safe, we'll have a ball regardless," says Gleeson.
O'Hagan grins. "That's right," he says. "Whatever happens, they'll know who we are before we've finished."