Saturday 29 November 2014

Rights lobby get it so wrong

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 16/03/2014 | 17:00

14 March 2014; Jockey Ruby Walsh walks On His Own, his mount for the Betfair Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase, back to the stables. Cheltenham Racing Festival 2014, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, England. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Ruby Walsh's good humour, lack of egotism, professionalism and ability to treat triumph and disaster equally is inspirational

Time to say something controversial. In 2003, my father died after a very brave and dignified struggle against cancer. I was extremely distraught about his death. In fact for several months I had a kind of nervous breakdown and couldn't do anything. That happens quite a lot with bereavement. There's no trauma quite like the loss of a close family member.

Now, last year my pet dog Toto died. He was a fine, friendly character and I'd had many a fun hour with him. But he took sick and that was that. I was a bit sad but I would have to say that this sadness was not the same kind which attended the death of my father. It wasn't in the same ballpark. The death of an animal, no matter how beloved, isn't the same thing as the death of a human.

This isn't actually a controversial thing to say at all. Any sane person knows it's true. A dead dog is not the same as a dead dad, a dead cat is not the same as a dead child, a dead guinea pig is not the same as a dead granny. Yet, simply for making this obvious point last week Ruby Walsh was forced to endure a torrent of vile abuse from anonymous cowards on the internet and criticism of the most surpassing stupidity from organisations who claim to represent 'animal rights'.

The furore came about because on being asked his feelings about the death of Our Conor in the Champion Hurdle, the jockey said, "It's sad, but horses are animals, outside your back door. Humans are humans, they are inside your door. You can replace a horse, you can't replace a human being."

He later added: "We look after horses like they're pets. There's a huge difference between your pet and your family. That's the point I was making. There's a big difference between you going home tonight and something's happened to your dog, and you go home tonight and something's happened to your kids . . . at the end of the day, it's still your pet. It ain't your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister."

These are eminently sensible comments and they would have been coloured by Ruby's knowledge of what can happen to jockeys on the racecourse. He'll remember JT McNamara being paralysed by a fall at Cheltenham last year, the death of young jockey Ryan Cusack in an accident last month, of Jack Tyner killed by a fall at a point-to-point three years ago, of Ronan Lawlor killed in a training accident four years ago, of Sean Cleary, Dary Cullen and Kieran Kelly, who also died on the racecourse since 2000, of Shane Broderick, paralysed from the neck down since a fall at Fairyhouse in 1997.

Closer to home, he'd have thought of Jason Maguire who as Cheltenham began was lying in a coma and having part of his liver removed after a fall at Stratford. Or, away from the racecourse altogether, of Tony McCoy's seven-month-old son Archie who was recovering from heart surgery. To imply that the human suffering endured by the McNamara, the Cusack, the Tyner, the Lawlor or the Cleary families compares in any way to the suffering involved in having one of your pets die is not only insulting, it's downright monstrous. Yet apparently there were people out there who thought Ruby Walsh should have done it all the same.

Because he didn't they decided to subject him to a barrage of threats and insults on Twitter. Among other things the jockey was told, 'Ruby Walsh, I hope you get your skull crushed by one of the horses . . . Shame more jockeys aren't killed instead of beautiful horses!!!!!! All jockeys are complete c**ts!! . . . I hope you fall off a horse and get trampled.' There was plenty more of this kind of stuff but I'll spare you.

This type of anonymous rhetoric tends to proliferate on Twitter where every day someone new is the subject of a digital equivalent to the Two Minute Hate from George Orwell's 1984.

But Walsh's remarks also drew criticism from spokespeople for organisations who believe they should be taken seriously on these matters. Chief among these has been one Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who said, "Walsh's comments expose the true emotion behind horse racing, They are deeply offensive to anyone who ever loved and lost a horse or other beloved animal companion."

A group called Animal Aid, who are currently campaigning for the banning of the Grand National, also got in on the act.

The torrent of abuse aimed at Walsh would have been unpalatable enough in any event but it's made worse by the fact that the jockey is one of the most admirable figures in Irish sport. Throughout his career, his good humour, his lack of egotism, his professionalism and his ability to treat triumph and disaster just the same have been inspirational. That's something he has in common with many of his colleagues. In an era where hero worship of major sporting figures is rife, perhaps only our jockeys genuinely display heroism. They do a dangerous job and make no fuss about it.

The day after Our Conor's death, Bryan Cooper suffered a horrendous leg break when he was kicked by a horse after falling. On Friday, there were anxious moments when Daryl Jacob suffered a heavy fall on to concrete after being thrown by a horse on the way down to the start.

And, of course, Ruby Walsh himself will be out for the next three months after a fall on Abyssial in the Triumph Hurdle left him with a compound fracture of the right arm. This is the kind of thing he's learned to live with and he doesn't make a fuss about it. He didn't make a fuss about the threats and abuse either, telling journalists, "I didn't know about it." Ruby Walsh isn't the kind of man who goes in for self-pity.

Yet what rankles is that it's the most attractive features of Walsh's personality which sparked the attacks. When he's asked a straight question, he gives a straight answer and that's what he did at Cheltenham. And he, like other jockeys, is hugely co-operative with the media, never dodging a question or coming out with a 'no comment'. It's a pity that this honesty and approachability has drawn the wrath of these people. In fact, it's laughable.

Ruby's father Ted noted that Britain "is a funny country. They can remember the names of the horses that got blown up in London but not the names of the people riding them." PETA, so often quoted on these matters, has been criticised for sexism, they've used naked models in advertising campaigns, and racism, they've used photographs of lynched black men in campaigns which compared them to animals suffering from cruelty. The leading feminist website Jezebel has even run a column headed, 'Is Ingrid Newkirk the worst woman in the world?', pointing out that PETA actually puts down animals in its custody.

Newkirk, a self-proclaimed "press slut," who wants her skin to be made into wallets when she dies, even went so far as to comment that, "Walsh needs reminding that it wasn't so long ago people used to deride his fellow countrymen using the same kind of ignorant language, and he'd do well to think a little harder and apologise for his comments." Such condescending nonsense is unlikely to persuade many people of PETA's case.

This then is the calibre of those who decided to hound one of this country's most noble sportsmen over the past week. If this is the kind of stuff they're going to come up with, perhaps they should take a leaf out of Doctor Dolittle's book and let the animals speak for themselves. Because in linking the death of a pet with the death of a human, they come across as not just stupid but inhuman.

Pass no heed, Ruby.

 

Future bright for young ringleaders

The ebb and flow of fortunes in Irish amateur boxing caused by its awesome strength in depth are perhaps best encapsulated in the person of Darren O'Neill.

The Kilkenny middleweight is an outstanding performer, a European silver medallist in 2010, an EU champion in 2009, an Olympian who was once ranked number three in the world. In another decade, or in another country, O'Neill would stand head and shoulders above domestic opposition. Instead the plethora of outstanding performers means he's had to battle all the way.

First it was Kenneth Egan and Darren Sutherland who stood between O'Neill and a national title, defeating him in three finals. O'Neill even led Sutherland in their 2008 final clash before being edged out. Sutherland went on to win bronze in that year's Olympics, Egan, who'd moved up to light-heavyweight, won silver. They both became national sporting heroes.

With Sutherland joining the professional ranks before his tragic death and Egan staying in the higher division, O'Neill's time to shine appeared to have arrived. And he made the most of it with four national titles and that European silver. But last year he was surprised in the first round of the national championships by Ballybofey 21-year-old Jason Quigley who beat him on countback.

Quigley went on from there to win European gold and world silver in an extraordinary year but, amid talk of him turning professional, he missed out on this year's nationals.

The stage seemed set for O'Neill to re-establish his dominance. Instead it was an even younger fighter, 20-year-old Michael O'Reilly from Portlaoise, who took a narrow points decision in the final nine days ago. Another contender of the highest quality had emerged. This is how it goes right now in Irish amateur boxing.

Because there has been nothing surprising about the ascension of either Quigley or O'Reilly. The former won European Youth and Under 23 titles while the latter took silver two years ago in the European Youth Championships. Young Irish boxers have been winning medals regularly at major underage championships and now these kids are coming through at senior level.

That's why there's no point getting into a flap about John Joe Nevin's decision to turn professional or the possibility that Jason Quigley might join him. There's a conveyor belt of talent. At last year's World Junior Championships in Kiev, Athy light-flyweight Willie Donoghue won gold with Oughterard's Kieran Molloy and Ballyhaunis's Sean Conroy winning bronze. At the European Youth Championships in Rotterdam, flyweight Gary Cully of St David's BC in Naas won a gold medal and the outstanding boxer award, Lisburn bantamweight Kurt Walker took silver to add to his silver from the previous year's World Youth Championships.

In the European juniors in Russia, Athy light-welterweight John Joyce won gold as he'd done at the European Schoolboy Championships two years before. And in last year's European Schoolboys in Dublin, Aaron McKenna of the Old School club in Monaghan and Jordan Myers of the Inishfree club in Sligo both struck gold.

It's an astounding, and somewhat unappreciated, record of success which this country has not got close to matching in any other sport. It suggests not only that the heads which wear the national crowns at senior level will lie uneasy from now on but that Irish amateur boxing looks well set up for not just the 2016 but the 2020 Olympics.

Just to keep the pot boiling further, there are even boxers breaking through without giving warning at underage level. Welterweight Stephen Donnelly of the All Saints club in Ballymena took a break from boxing altogether last year but came back to the ring to win a first national senior title and bag the best boxer award in the process. To do so he had to beat a pair of Olympians in John Joe Joyce and Adam Nolan.

That's what it takes to become a national amateur boxing champion. No Irish title is harder won.

 

Meyler's maturity will be rewarded

I can't help feeling Alan Pardew was lucky David Meyler was the object of his wrath when he decided to headbutt a player on the sideline.

There are plenty of footballers out there who'd have welcomed the chance to start a full-scale brawl, roll around and make the incident look much worse or who'd have stoked the flames afterwards.

It speaks volumes for Meyler's strength of character, something which has been badly needed over the past few seasons. Good enough to play in the Premier League at the age of 20, his career has been disrupted by serious knee injuries in 2010 and 2011. On both occasions the player's toughness saw him get back ahead of schedule but there's no doubt that the injuries and the absences hampered his progress at both club and international level.

Now, reunited with Steve Bruce who gave him his break at Sunderland, Meyler is only one game away from a Wembley final. He can also play a role for Ireland where he might already be anchoring the midfield were it not for those injuries.

It's surprising to discover that after all he's been through David Meyler is still only 24. Alan Pardew can be thankful he's a lot older than that in terms of emotional maturity.

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