Tuesday 21 May 2019

From Bregawn to the bog

With fake-tanned fashionistas, turf-cutters and Gold Cup heroes, Listowel Races turn town into a city

Listowel native Jim Kennelly celebrates the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup victory of Bregawn. Photo by Gerry Armes/Birmingham Mail/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Listowel native Jim Kennelly celebrates the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup victory of Bregawn. Photo by Gerry Armes/Birmingham Mail/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

I can hear the clattering of bottles being stuck in to their coffins down below in the back yard. In a few hours the doors will open for the biggest week of the year here in Listowel.

I did get a dose of PRT earlier in the week. PRT is pre-races tension. As ever, I referenced my mother. Just before her last Listowel Races, three years ago now, she gave the best of advice: "We have been through 59 of these Bill, and we're still here."

Bregawn, which later won at Listowel. Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Bregawn, which later won at Listowel. Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images

This year the rains came and the track is soft. There will be new racing lines every day. In other words the horses will race on virgin ground. The odds are in favour of a full seven days of racing. The Infant de Prague will be out day and night. Our custom is to keep the holy statue outdoors. It is said the statue keeps the rain away.

David 'Classy' Fitzmaurice is this year's races chairman. He has been working her, man and boy, for over 50 years. There's no them and us. None of the race company directors are paid. Listowel Races is run for the people by the people. All profits are reinvested back in to the course.

'Classy' would be barred from any library because he raises the roof wherever he goes. He has a bus organised for Ladies Day on Friday. 'Save your heels, we have wheels' is his catchy marketing ploy. We are expecting about 30,000 on the course for Ladies Day. You might think I'm biased when I say the women at Ladies Day here in my home town are better togged out than the ladies at Royal Ascot, but it's true.

I was at Royal Ascot one time and noticed most of the women were looking down towards the ground. I thought maybe it was how they lost a betting slip or money. But then I was told by a fashionista that the women were wearing earrings the size of chandeliers and couldn't lift up their heads with the weight of the bling.

The local girls go all out. Only the other day I was told the beauticians have bought a cement mixer for activating the fake tan. Fake nails are in more demand than rhino horn. Fashion and racing go well together. Irish women love to dress up.

And a new expression has come into our vernacular. It seems the judges for the best dressed prizes on Ladies Day invite the chosen ladies to a marquee for prosecco and canapés. Hence the term "called in".

I have been told there are more independent women's clothes stores in Listowel than you would find in Dublin City centre. And the reason is we are too small for the androgynous big-brand chains. Small is beautiful. And RTé sport agree. RTé are not televising the second biggest race meeting in Ireland - and the most fashionable. They showed a soccer game lately and you would see more in a portaloo. TG4 do an incredible job though. Míle Buíochas.

Wednesday is the biggest day. Thousands will travel for the Guinness Kerry National. The total prize money has increased to €1.2 million and HRI are to be thanked.

Coneygree, the winner of the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup, was due to run but was scratched yesterday because of the ground. Even if he had run, Coneygree wouldn't have been the first Gold Cup winner to race here. L'Escargot was just beaten in the Kerry National and the quirky Bregawn won a race in Listowel when most of us thought he had downed tools.

Bregawn was owned by the Kennellys from Listowel. Their father used to own a big Irish draught with hairy white feet. His sons Murt and Jim helped their dad bring goods from the train on a dray.

There wasn't much doing here and the Kennellys hit for England where they were very successful. The love of the horse was bred in to the brothers. Bregawn won The Cheltenham Gold Cup on the day Michael Dickinson trained the first five home.

By then Jim had moved back home and he bought a bit of land. He was the one delegated to collect the Cheltenham Gold Cup from The Queen. Jim's accent ran through his sentences like the Feale in flood. Neither success nor England changed him in any way. It was fast talk from a quick brain. Her Majesty asked Jim if he was delighted, or words to that effect. Jim's reply was, "To tell you the truth Ma'am, I'd rather be in the bog." Turf-cutting was never far from his heart.

I hope the Queen didn't think Jim was referring to the toilet which is known as the bog in parts of England where they eat their dinner standing up. But it was more of case of Jim being uncomfortable, wrapped up in a suit as claustrophobic as Tutankhamen's sarcophagus. Jim was true to himself and the moorlands of North Kerry. I'm sure the Queen understood, for she, too, loves horses.

Spin It's only a couple of hours now to the first race. Our town is a city for a week. From the window up over the pub I can see families heading for Bird's Amusements, just as I did as a son and as a dad. There will be a spin on the hurdy-gurdies. Small boys and girls will grow beards made from candy floss.

Today is family day and from Bird's, the parents and kids will cross two bridges over to The Island and the races.

The rain has stopped and the sun peeps out for a look at the age-old pageant. Mam used to bless the house and the pub with Knock water every year before the off. Despite not being very blessed - as ye all know - I will be doing the sprinkling today. For the first time ever.

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