Sport Horse Racing

Friday 26 April 2019

Billy Keane - St Stephen, boxing and the madness of King George

Glorious day of racing helps us escape from the purgatory of domesticity

The pick of Ruby Walsh, Might Bite will go off favourite at Kempton today. Photo: Getty Images
The pick of Ruby Walsh, Might Bite will go off favourite at Kempton today. Photo: Getty Images
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

For years I thought Boxing Day was so called because lads went walloping each other late at night on the Feast of St Stephen. Boxing Day is so called because this was the day for giving Christmas boxes. We were given the tradition of the day out on the 26th by the English.

This lad came home from England for the Christmas, and even though the emigrant was only gone the bare six months, he would ask questions of his "mates" such as "what are you blokes doing for Boxing Day?". And then the linguist shouted "go on my son" in Cockney, at the horse he backed, even though most definitely, he was not the horse's father.

Us bar men are always on edge. The release from purgatory of domesticity is celebrated with a mad abandon.


You would swear those under one-day house arrest were inside for 20 years. So the moral of the story is take it easy on the drink.

The extreme has always been the norm on Stephen's Day. The hunting of the wren would hardly qualify as a sport nowadays but there was a time when capturing the little bird was considered to be great sport. Except by the wren. And there was trouble too.

Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, writing in 1828, told of a place in the east where "the rabble of the town (were) going from door to door, with a wren in a holly bush asking for money." And the Mayor of Cork forbade the hunting of the wren "by all the idle fellows of the town."

There was fighting over collecting territory, and I suppose this too has continued, only it's drug turf now in every village, town and city. The Gardai are in the firing line without so much as a word of thanks.

The North Kerry championship finished off early this year, thanks to Chairman Johnny Stack, and these Boxing Day games could be classified as a blood sport. There will be a fair share of hunting for the wren in Thomond too, where Munster and Leinster indulge all the old tribal ferocities.

But most of the big sporting events take place in the UK. You would have to feel a bit sorry for St Stephen, who is hardly ever mentioned over the water even though he surely deserves the naming of the day in his honour. St Stephen, no more than yours truly, was a martyr. He was stoned to death.

There are others too who work on St Stephen's Day.

I know of men and women who will spend more time studying today than they did in five years of secondary school. Today is the day the punters cram. There is racing in Limerick and Leopardstown. Then we have the Boxing Day fixtures at Sedgefield, Wincanton, Fontwell Park, Huntingdon, Market Rasen, Wetherby and Wolverhampton.

Punters trade all day in the betting shops. This is the Dax, the Hang Sen and the Nasdaq for the small man - and what is the stock market anyway, only another form of betting.

And if you are having a bet, bet with real money in the local shop. The bookies' expenses are huge. I have heard harrowing tales of men eating hundreds worth of Bourbon Creams. The Bourbons are irresistible.

When I was a small boy I stripped the cellotape off the box of USA to get at the Bourbon Creams. Then the cellotape was carefully stuck back around the USA box after the creamy brown Bourbons were surreptitiously eaten. It was Hatton Garden for kids.


The big race today is The King George VI chase in Kempton. George VI is the very same George who was the subject of the movie The King's Speech.

Ruby Walsh, who won the race five times on Kauto Star is out with a broken leg. The Kill man fancies Might Bite. His tip started off too fast at Cheltenham last spring but he also finished too fast. And who am I to disagree with the man who many consider to be the best jockey of all time?

Now hear this, if the horse loses, don't go blaming me. I feel like putting in words like "the value of your investment may rise or fall" every time I give a tip.

There are those who turn on the tipster. You would swear I took away their tracker mortgage and replaced it with a loan from the Mafia. Rule number one when it comes to backing horses: don't expect to win.

Although there was a short poem made up by Oul Patsy Browne, who is not to be confused with his father Oul Browne. The Brownes are still a famous and fun-loving bookmaking family.

Patsy's jingle went "Betting just like kissing is no sin/bet with Browne, you're sure to win."

Please bet in moderation, or you will have no money left for drink later on.

The great escape from Stephen's Day incarceration proves we are still very much a nation of pagans.

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