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Final call at Dingle Races for Thomas O’Callaghan: ‘I think it’s time to move on. I’ve enjoyed it’

This weekend’s Dingle Races will be the final time that Thomas O’Callaghan calls the runners and riders home. The Dingle native has enjoyed every minute of it, and he still plans to be involved with the Dingle Races for many more years to come.  

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Thomas O'Callaghan overlooking the racetrack at Ballintaggart. (Photo by Declan Malone).

Thomas O'Callaghan overlooking the racetrack at Ballintaggart. (Photo by Declan Malone).

Thomas O'Callaghan overlooking the racetrack at Ballintaggart. (Photo by Declan Malone).

kerryman

Thomas O’Callaghan will call the runners and riders home a final time at this weekend’s Dingle Races after over 20 years with the mic.

The Dingle native and popular race commentator – known as ‘Dingle Tom’ among Ireland’s horse- and pony-racing clan – has decided to step aside.

“I’m from Dingle and it’s hard to explain what the races mean to us. It’s just something very special,” said Thomas.

“There comes a time when one has to step aside from it. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve recently retired from work, and I just want to take a step back. I’ll still be around to help but as for calling them home, I think it’s time to move on. I’ve enjoyed it.”

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Thomas has been involved with Dingle Races in various roles for over 35 years. He is passionate about horses, even though he says he hails from a family with little or no interest in horses.

Early influences include former John Street neighbour, the late Peadar Curran. Peadar was a horse dealer and was widely known among horse enthusiasts. It was Peadar who ignited the fascination in horses for Thomas.

Notions of becoming a jockey were even entertained for a time, but this was met with firm disapproval by his mother.

It only served to direct his interest elsewhere within the sport, and in the 1980s he was appointed to the Dingle Race Committee.

Thomas has taken up various positions since, but his move to racing commentary started in County Donegal.

“When I moved to Donegal, I was involved in the pony-racing circuit there for many years. I was asked to commentate on a race one day, which I did. That was that,” he said.

“I was doing all the on-course announcing at Dingle prior to commentating.

“Jerry Kelliher, who is from Cork, used do the race commentary that time. He had a wedding on the Saturday of the festival one year when they asked me to do it. That was over 20 years now.”

It’s all about preparation at this time of year for Thomas.

As soon as the entries close, the local printers send Thomas the list of runners. He studies the race cards, visualising what the fields will look like come race day.

“I wouldn’t know all the horses as such; I only relate to the jockeys’ colours,” he said.

“Take Dylan O’Connor [jockey], his silks are royal blue with a white star, back and front. Tubbs McNally has all blue with stars on the sleeve. Tommy Hyland has orange colours with a green chevron back and front. That’s how I’d visualise it. You can only prepare by knowing that you don’t know what to expect, if that makes sense.”

Dingle Races has been in the thick of it for the past few years due to COVID and problems with insurance.

The countdown to next week, when familiar faces gather again at Ballintaggart, marks the resumption of something uniquely special.

“It’s like a resurrection to have it back, people appreciate it. To see that track two years ago and looking at it, with not a sound around the place, was a humbling experience. It’s a unique thing to Dingle people,” he explained.

“Dingle Races has been through a lot of transformations. It’s special to us because it is our tradition. It has a social aspect, and it has an economic one.

“Growing up, Dingle Races was the highlight of our year, and it has transcended the generations, with the baton being handed on to various committees each time,” he said.

Commentating at Dingle Races has occasionally produced a merger between work and euphoria for Thomas.

It doesn’t happen often in racing – at any level – that a commentator gets to call his own horse home, first past the post.

One horse that holds a special place in Thomas’ heart is a filly named Scothscéalta (best of stories). She won at Dingle and finished second in the prestigious Dingle Derby.

“She almost gave me, possibly, the biggest prize in horse racing: a Dingle Derby. That is the race I’d love most to win,” he said.

“I nearly lost control of myself when I saw her coming up the hill that day as I thought I had it. She gave Jamie Spencer his second ever winner when he started off in pony racing. She was placed in all distances in Dingle and second in the Derby.

“We’ve had a lot of horses in the intervening years but nothing will ever compare to her, she was a special talent. Another nice memory is of a mare I owned named Jenny.

“I called her home when she won at Dingle. She won it by half the track,” Thomas said.

Those involved in pony racing the length and breadth of Ireland recognise its overwhelming value to the racing industry.

An academy in all but name, topflight jockeys such as Bryan Cooper, Jack Kennedy, Paul Townend, Adrian Maguire, Barry Geraghty, Nina Carberry, Oisin Murphy, and Chris Hayes have all cut their teeth at pony racing.

The Dingle Races is known as the Cheltenham of pony racing for good reason. It’s far from just another tired racing cliché. Riding at Dingle is genuinely top of the charts for jockeys starting out.

“It’s brilliant calling these jockeys home before they are famous and become household names. They love Dingle and never forget it,” said Thomas. 

“I was at the Galway Races for a day last week when six of the seven races on the card were won by jockeys who came through the horse-and-pony-racing circuit: Bryan Cooper, Chris Hayes, Colin Keane, Gavin Ryan, who had two winners, and Wayne Lordon. What’s more, they all rode winners at Dingle.

“That underscores the importance of pony racing to the industry. They have never forgotten it.

“Horse-and-pony-racing is a gem as it gives jockeys a grounding and teaches them skills and interaction that gives them a clear advantage,” Thomas explains.

No mention of pony racing and Dingle in the same sentence would be complete without referring to Jack Kennedy.

Since breaking into the professional ranks, Jack’s success has elevated him to an ambassador’s role for pony racing in all but name.

“Jack, to me, is probably one of the best that ever came through the pony-racing circuit. Jack has telepathy in his hands with horses. Horses run on the bridle for Jack. He instilled confidence in everything he did. It was easy to see he was going to go places,” Thomas said.

It’s widely accepted the top tier of the Irish racing industry needs to cease with its pious platitudes where pony racing is concerned and accept its importance in a meaningful way.

To ignore and disregard its value to Irish racing is to ignore and disregard horse-racing’s own future.

As Thomas prepares for his swansong next week, he departs with a firm but precise warning for the future of pony racing.

“There’s going to have to be uniformity of approach to pony racing. It will have to be brought into a better communications system with media, for example,” he explained.

“If pony racing goes, it is going to have a detrimental effect in producing jockeys for the track. Pony racing is noted by everybody, in Britain and Ireland. The entire industry must look at it and see how pony racing can bring the sport forward.

“The professional jockeys never forget the grounding they got from pony racing. It’s high time this is recognised in a positive, constructive, and beneficial way by those at the top of the industry.”


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