Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Former farmer and haulier Paddy ‘Whacker’ Behan is living the Cheltenham dream

Paddy Behan with his mare Monte Solaro, who is one month overdue with foal. Monte Solaro is the dam of Altior - the odds-on favourite for today's Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham. Photo: Alf Harvey
Paddy Behan with his mare Monte Solaro, who is one month overdue with foal. Monte Solaro is the dam of Altior - the odds-on favourite for today's Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham. Photo: Alf Harvey

Ken Whelan

It will be all quiet in the Behan household in Laois just shortly after lunchtime today (Tuesday), but expect an eruption of shouting and cheering if Altior jumps the last fence at Cheltenham and storms to victory in the Arkle Trophy.

"I am not a man for shouting myself but there will be some shouting here at home if Altior wins. All I hope is that everything goes well for the horse," says Paddy 'Whacker' Behan who bred the top-class chaser and warm favourite for today's feature race.

"I knew we had a good horse from the day he was born and so did the horse agent from Rathangan who bought him from me for €17,000. He saw something special in him when he saw him lying in the field, though he never told me what that 'special' was," says Paddy.

"The horse is regarded as the Seabiscuit of Tierhogar around these parts and everyone will be shouting for him," the 64-year-old former sugar beet farmer and haulier for both Odlums and the former Irish Sugar company told the Farming Independent.

Paddy never thought he had a Cheltenham contender on his hands when he met the agent that Sunday afternoon, but he knew he had a good horse.

"We had interest from the Michael O'Leary operation and while I don't usually do business on a Sunday, the family - wife Rose and farming son Paddy Jr on the horse breeding side - persuaded me to do the deal and accept the offer because you never know when a horse might get injured or break a leg.

"The agent told me later that when he saw Altior he was never going to leave the farm without buying the horse," Paddy recalls.

The horse was sold on to English owner Patricia Pugh who in turn sent him to leading British trainer Nicky Henderson who then turned him into the champion he is today.

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It is a typical Irish National Hunt story where the small guy who runs a one-mare breeding operation in the middle of the country fetches up as the hero of a National Hunt racing dream.

His main focus these days is on the breeding side of the farm enterprise. He has handed over the running of the farm to his son, Paddy Jr, after the beet industry went west and after taking enough knocks on his legs and hips to last a lifetime.

And it all began when Paddy bought Altior's mother - Monte Solaro from his brother Jack - another horse-mad Behan living in the Queen's County.

Monte was a good filly who won races and got her black type after winning a €30,000 pot at Tralee over 10 years ago when trained by Francis Flood but when she was injured, the Behans' retired her and brought her back to the home farm near Portarlington to breed from her.

There she began a quite remarkable career breeding winners like Key To The West, Princess Layla and then Altior.

And in the background they have a young filly called Melior who will make her bow in the new family racing colours of black with a pink star and pink sleeves at the upcoming Punchestown or Fairyhouse racing festivals.

"We have had a few offers for Melior but we are keeping her and we are going to build on the Monte Solaro bloodline," Paddy explains.

And then of course there is another shy Monte Solaro horse that is due any day now or is, more precisely, overdue by over a month now.

"If it is a colt we will sell him but if it is a filly we will keep her at Tierhogar. Keep the ladies and sell the lads and build up the bloodline is the policy down here," says Paddy Jr, who has taken over the day-to-day running of the family farm and is in the process of building a pedigree Charolais cattle at Tierhogar.

It's a view echoed by the woman of the house, Rose who is ad idem with the two Paddys about securing the equine blood lines at Tierhogar.

Asked if the family have any regrets about selling Altior considering the amount of prize money the horse has amassed since leaving Laois, Paddy replies, "Not a bit of it.

"No, we have zero regrets and good luck to the owners this week. Everyone including the grandchildren will be cheering for him. He's a great horse," comes Paddy Senior's reply.

Asked if he has met the current connections of Altior, he replies in the negative. "We have never met Patricia Pugh or Nicky Henderson but we might do so if they bring Altior over to Fairyhouse at Easter."

And that would surely take the form of a family reunion considering that Altior's three-part sister Melior may be making her racing debut there and another sibling should be prancing around the paddocks on the Behan farm down in Co Laois.

Finally, I did, of course, ask the crucial question: where did Paddy get his nickname 'Whacker'?

"I got it at school," says Paddy.

"The other pupils used to recite the kids' rhyme - Nick Nack Paddy Whack - because I was tall, and it stuck into adulthood when I played as a tight head prop for the Curragh rugby team - now Newbridge.

"Everyone knows me as Whacker," he explains.

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