At the 2006 Cheltenham Festival a Listowel-owned horse called Hairy Molly brought euphoria to the town when winning at 33/1. One of his owners tells the story of that never-to-be-forgotten day.
Dreams are made and broken in the blink of an eye in horse racing. Tales of unrestrained joy have long been a neighbour to misfortune. And yet, at its best, the sport makes light work of life’s problems and ensures unreachable dreams are sometimes within reach.
It’s precisely how one might describe Hairy Molly when opening the cover to his story. It’s 17 years since the wonder horse owned by the Listowel-based FTB Syndicate achieved the impossible dream by winning the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham.
Many owners dare to dream of a festival winner, let alone revel in the reality. For owners Kay and John Sayers and Tina and Joe Guerin, that day in the Cotswolds in 2006 is forever safe in the memory bank of Cheltenham triumphs.
A prized picture of Hairy Molly and Paul Carberry - seconds after crossing the finish line at Cheltenham - hangs on the wall of the Sayers’ family home. Today, Hairy Molly’s success belongs to the rich archive of stories told around Listowel’s streets.
The story starts like any other: John Sayers and Joe Guerin went to see a man about a horse. A friend of John’s, Willie Sheehan, introduced them to the late Joseph Crowley, the shrewdest of shrewdest trainers from Piltown in County Kilkenny, and father-in-law to flat trainer Aidan O’Brien.
Willie, Joe, John, and his daughter Emma, went to Crowley’s yard where they had the pick of three horses. When all considerations were done, Hairy Molly was chosen and so started his never-to-be-forgotten connection with Listowel.
The horse had impressed with his sharp action, balance and quick turn of foot on the gallops that morning. A good walker with plenty scope to grow into a chaser, the ‘for sale’ sign was taken down – they had found their horse.
“We thought we might win a local race or two with him. We had always dreamed about owning a horse. Then John, Joe, Tina and I said we would go and do it. The timing was right,” Kay says.
Hairy Molly duly obliged when winning his first bumper race at Nass in January 2006 - a track that would account for three of his six career wins.
“Hairy Molly was our first horse. When you think about it, we bought him in October, and he went to Cheltenham in March and won. We started on a serious high,” Kay explains.
The owners still feel extremely privileged to have indulged in the opportunities created by their horse. To win at their local track would have been fantastic. But a win at Cheltenham surpasses everything they hoped for.
“We know that everyone with a racehorse it’s in the back of their mind to go to Cheltenham someday. We went just feeling fantastic we were going there. If we finished fourth or fifth, we would celebrate. But to win was beyond belief,” Kay says.
The build up to the 2006 Cheltenham Festival involved the entire town of Listowel. Leading up to the race, people on the street - some of whom were unknown - wished the syndicate members the best of luck. Listowel is a racing town renowned for its support. They know a good horse when they see one.
On the day of the race the nerves were a dime a dozen. Joe and Tina Guerin, who were spending part of the year travelling between Australia and Ireland, never felt removed from the buzz of it all. Joe flew into London and took a taxi to Cheltenham.
“We went to the course early in the morning. We were lucky to get into the stables and see all the horses; Beef or Salmon was very close by that day,” explains Kay.
“The pre-saddling area had a great atmosphere. I recall there being great camaraderie amongst all the owners. Everyone was wishing everyone else the best of luck. That was really special to see: the behind-the-scenes side of Cheltenham. The buzz in the parade ring is just absolutely indescribable.
“I have one really strong memory of Hairy Molly in the parade ring and his head was down. I turned to one of the lads and said: ‘I hope today is not the day he’s going to get depressed’. He was very settled but did look depressed. But he got over that very quickly. There’s always concern when you go to Cheltenham wondering how the horse has travelled over,” Kay says.
Kay, John, Joe and Tina all felt their horse was doing well for most of the race. In the final few furlongs their hearts skipped multiple beats while the roars went up a decibel or two. ‘Could he really win?’ They thought.
“The race finished, and we assumed we’d finished second. We had two very good friends from Listowel, Con McCarthy and Brian Quille, in front of us who decided we had won. When the result was called it was just phenomenal,” Kay says.
“We have great memories of the late Eric Browne who came running to meet us, and that night celebrating with the late Eamonn O’Carroll. They were two giants of horse racing in Listowel and it’s brilliant to have them in our memories of that special day.
"We were getting messages and calls all that night from people back home. One person told us the road was blocked back in Listowel with people celebrating,” she adds.
Standing on the winner’s podium at Cheltenham takes a few seconds at most. It’s the distillation of a dream, the full-on realisation that what has just happened is for real.
“We appreciated every second of being on that winner’s podium,” Kay says.
“It was the last race of the day, and the place was emptying out a bit. But there was still a fantastic amount of Listowel and Kerry people that stayed on to wish us well. As is traditional with Irish winners, we had to sing a song. We sang a verse of ‘My Silver River Feale’ by Bryan McMahon. We blasted that out from the podium at Cheltenham.”
Kay is full of praise for the horse’s trainer. Joe Crowley passed away in 2020 at the age of 91. Kay describes him as a ‘fantastic trainer and communicator’ who was always warm and welcoming whenever they visited the yard to see their horse.
“His head lad was Damien Byrne, who travelled to Cheltenham with Hairy Molly in 2006. Gareth Power was Joe’s stable jockey and he got on fantastically well with Hairy Molly, especially riding at Nass. Joe was extremely knowledgeable. We went to Piltown after Cheltenham and had a party with the staff. It was very important to share the win with them,” Kay says.
The Limerick-based trainer Michael Hourigan once said of horse racing that it’s a sport that would tame lions. The highs - if one is lucky enough to reach them - are quickly followed by the lows.
By 2010, Hairy Molly had settled in nicely to his chasing career. With two wins under his belt over fences, on August 19 he was making a debut before the home crowd at Killarney Racecourse.
All the portents for another special day were in place when disaster struck. Game to the last, Hairy Molly fell at the final fence and was killed. The air was sucked from his owners, who adored their horse.
“It was a unique day in one sense as Joe had some friends from Australia over to see the race,” Kay explains.
“We had decided it was the last time Hairy Molly would run, and we were going to bring him home to keep him as a family pet. We have a son with an intellectual disability, and he was able to walk the horse and interact with him. The horse had a beautiful nature,” she adds.
“Seeing him fall was absolutely horrendous. It’s very hard to describe as it’s a massive loss. Apart from the fantastic days out we had with him, we became very attached to him because of his gentle nature. It was devastating. It’s a very difficult part of owning horses. There is a huge emotional wrench. He always gave his all,” Kay says.
But the lasting memory of Hairy Molly is at Cheltenham - the horse’s finest hour. It’s here that his fading image will forever linger in the mind’s eye of his owners. His true resting place.
“He still comes up very regularly in conversation. Even when we’re racing round the country his name always comes up. I think it’s because the name is very distinctive. The locals still talk about him as it seems everyone in Listowel had a bet on the horse,” Kay says.
“When you go into Jets Bar there’s a picture of Hairy Molly. If you go into The Horseshoe Bar there’s another picture in the restaurant upstairs on the wall. We’re constantly reminded of that day. We’ve had other horses and winners since. But it’s an exceptional privilege to have a winner at Cheltenham. We’ll never forget it.”