Passion for racing ignited after date with super Stars
ON Monday, I was honoured to present the annual Horse Racing Ireland awards ceremony at Leopardstown. The great and the good of the game were there – everyone from Dermot Weld and Aidan O'Brien to Barry Geraghty and Peter Casey.
And it was a space I was comfortable in, something I would never have expected not long ago.
From the outside, racing can be perceived as an elitist club that you need loads of money to be part of, or bred into to understand its nuances.
A few years ago, I was one of those people. That frustrated me to a certain degree because I am obsessive about sport. But racing? I didn't get it or engage with it.
Then, three years ago, I went to interview John Oxx about Sea The Stars for 'Ear To The Ground'. After his incredible season on the track, Sea The Stars was due to leave for his new career at Gilltown Stud the same day, and my eyes just sprung open.
Speaking with John was such an enlightening experience. He showed me this beautiful horse, talked about everything that made him special, from his temperament and physique to the staff on the yard and the exceptional talent of Mick Kinane.
All of a sudden, I was curious. Then 'Stars Go Racing' came along for RTE, and I got the chance to spend time with Michael Halford, who was the most generous mentor.
I was just in awe of him. Horses are supreme athletes but they can't talk, so the sensitivity and intuitiveness of a trainer and their staff, who can interpret the infinite signs that a myriad number of horses in the yard give off, was fascinating to behold.
It was at Michael's that my preconception of racing being simply a playground for the rich was finally debunked.
There, as in every yard around the country, I saw all these brilliant, disciplined young riders starting out, getting an opportunity to flourish. They come from all walks of life and all that matters is that you have the right attitude and an affinity for horses.
Johnny Murtagh is the perfect example of someone not born with a silver spoon or a racing pedigree who became a huge success, and Ronan Whelan, last season's champion apprentice, is the next big thing.
I was so impressed with him when I interviewed him on Monday. He has the perfect mix of confidence and modesty, with a tremendously strong work ethic. Few people would be so ambitious and talented, yet aware of their place in the world at the same time, and he is typical of the sort of inspiring figuring that racing so often produces.
A day after Flemenstar's latest victory at Punchestown, Casey was a slightly different interviewee – as you might imagine. I was fizzing with excitement beforehand and, while we ended up talking at length on stage about his gallant nocturnal pursuits, shall we say, I think I got off lightly!
Flemenstar goes to Leopardstown at Christmas now, and I will be there with festive bells on. I have signed up three non-racing friends to come along, so I look forward to seeing their eyes widen, just as mine did when I first began to grasp the game.
Colman Sweeney, who won the point-to-point award, was a pleasure to speak with as well. He is so enthusiastic, typical of the rural characters that are the fabric of the 'pointing' world and the many small racecourses that give localities an identity.
Ballinrobe, one such venue, received the racecourse award. A track like that, situated by the Partry Mountains, is so idyllic and of such value to the local community.
For someone steeped in agriculture on a daily basis, realising that is something that I have derived great pleasure from over the past few years. My only regret is that I spent so much of my life ignorant of a sport about which I am now so passionate.
For more information on racing in Ireland this weekend check out www.goracing.ie