Arkle was the best, we will never see his likes again
With Cheltenham just days away Stephen Fernane chats to well-known Tralee racing expert Grant O'Sullivan about the Sport of Kings which he has followed with great passion for over 50 years
Few people in town have the same knowledge of the Sport of Kings as Grant O'Sullivan from Connolly Park.
Every March as Cheltenham looms large on the horizon, Grant's mind drifts back to days he describes as 'special' under the shadow of Cleeve Hill in the Cotswolds.
A keen follower of horse racing and greyhounds all his life, Grant will be familiar to Tralee folk for his trademark hat and scarf as he chats to people during his daily walk about town.
He went into the betting business in England in the 1960s when betting shops were first legalised, working for Lennings and Burns. He worked as a clerical officer in the UK and also for a time with the Ascot Gas Heater Company - a place he would get to know well in the years ahead.
Grant met his late wife Madge while in London and they have two daughters, Catriona and Michelle, both of whom won All-Ireland basketball titles at a rate of knots in their playing days.
Just a few weeks ago Grant was a proud dad when Michelle received a gold medal from the president of the European Commission Mr Jean Claude Juncker for her 22 years' service to the European Commission.
Grant's travel diary includes visits to racetracks in Ascot, Sandown, Epsom, York, Goodwood, Kempton, Newbury, Aintree, Cheltenham; the Breeders' Cup and Arlington Millions in America; and the Prix De Le'Arc De Triomphe in France.
An example of his deep knowledge of all things equine happened just a few hours before last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup when my brother (not a racing man) was searching for some each-way value in the big race. As luck would have it he met Grant that morning who suggested he back the JP McManus-owned Minella Rocco. The horse finished second at odds of 18/1 and had the race carried on another 50 yards, he may well have won it.
"Cheltenham brings back lovely memories of great times I had with friends, especially in The Queens Hotel which was, and still is, a great place to meet," he said.
"Looking back it was an absolute pleasure to have seen and met so many nice people in racing, trainers and jockeys alike. A lot of my friends have passed away since and when I think back we had days in racetracks all over England and Ireland. Men like Tunney Galvin and Donie Kelly, Brendan 'Bob' O'Brien, Michael 'Wick' Connell, Joe Sugrue and Florrie McAuliffe - great times indeed."
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Istabraq's first Champion Hurdle win in his glorious triple crown from 1998 to 2000. Grant's face lights up at the mention of his name. "He was brilliant. Istabraq is my favourite over hurdles. But the likes of Monksfield, See You Then, Persian War and Sea Pigeon were other greats over hurdles," he reminds me.
Once the process of naming horses is underway the floodgates of memory open and names such as Sea Bird, Santa Claus, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Shergar, Dancing Brave, Yeats, Frankel and Sea the Stars flow from Grant as though he were reciting his favourite poem.
"I had the pleasure of seeing many of these horses. I saw two of the greats of the sport in trainer Vincent O'Brien and jockey Lester Piggott win races at Epsom and Royal Ascot. The best derby winner I saw was Sir Ivor and the one ride that stands out is the Epsom Derby of 1972 when Lester Piggott gave Roberto an amazing ride against Rheingold. They were neck and neck until Lester gave a final crack of the whip to lead home by a head."
But one horse stands head and shoulders above all others in Grant's eyes. His name is Arkle. His three Gold Cups from 1964-66 are recalled by Grant as if they happened only yesterday.
"I was at Cheltenham when Arkle won two of his three Gold Cups and also at Kempton the day he got injured in December 1966," he says.
"That was the mighty Arkle's last race. Dormant won receiving two-stone from Arkle. What a horse Arkle was to finish on three legs. He was something else and we'll never see his likes again," he says with certainty.
No conversation about horse racing with Grant would be complete without mention of the Kerry connection and the amazing contribution men from the Kingdom have made to the Sport of Kings. Grant tells me he knew the late Dessie Cooper from Blennerville, whose son Tom trained a Bumper and Arkle Chase winner at the Cheltenham Festival in 2004 and 2007.
"It's remarkable when you think about it: Tom Cooper, Jim Culloty, Jack Kennedy and Bryan Cooper immediately spring to mind. Bryan of course won the Gold Cup in 2016 with Don Cossack and he has a good record at the track. Philip Enright rides a lot of winners in Ireland and, of course, the brilliant young Jack Kennedy who is having a great season with Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown."
But Grant's encyclopaedic knowledge soon steps up a gear as he delves deeper into the memory banks to produce names that many people won't have heard of.
"Derry 'Boggy' Whelan from Tralee sent out many winners from his Epsom stables in the 1960s and 1970s. And there was the young jockey Tommy Reidy who died at 27. He rode for the Doug Smith stable and his father Mike Reidy came from Strand Road. Tommy Stack from Moyvane, who famously won the Grand National on Red Rum, is another famous jockey. I was at Aintree the year Red Rum won his first Grand National in 1973."
Closer to home, Grant laments the loss of racing in Ballybeggan which he calls an 'historic track' where Dawn Run and Vintage Crop won races. He tells me it was originally owned by a cousin of his, local business man Denis Slattery whose family owned Slattery's Bacon Factory which later became Denny's Kerry Group. Denis sold Ballybeggan back in the early 1940s to the newly formed Ballybeggan Park Race Company.
"He sold it for the same price that he bought it which was around 4,000 pounds. Denis also owned some good horses and greyhounds in his time.
"It's sad not to see horses in what is a fine racetrack and the capital town of our county. There used to be meetings held there in March and June and the Festival meeting in August. Those were great days with all the Roses and the floats in attendance and the meetings would be covered by RTE. You'd have to ask yourself why we can't have racing back there again."
I can't let Grant go without asking him to give our readers a tip (or two) for Cheltenham and the horses he feels have the best chance.
"The horses that should win but whose prices are too short for the average punter are Footpad, Apple's Jade and Buveue D'Air on Tuesday, while Altior looks the main pick for Wednesday. Horses that represent a bit of value are If the Cap Fits in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Acey Milan in the Champion Bumper."