Ger Gilroy: Art of sport can only be understood by the artists themselves
The day dawns cold, with a ricket of sleet to welcome us down the sideroads of rural Meath. We're somewhere between Enfield and Longwood, en route to one of the most progressive yards in National Hunt a fortnight out from Cheltenham. Electric gates open at Cullentra House, home of Gordon Elliott Racing, and we drive into a car park, where riders' faces are illuminated by the interior lights of their cars as they mop up some last warmth before plunging into the freezing air.
There are huge sheds plotting our course up to the house which Elliott calls home, and as the morning light sketches out the horizon, you realise slowly that here is a purpose-built maze of facilities designed to make horses win.
There's a bespoke swimming pool that aids recovery and helps prevent injury, walkers that walk horses simultaneously for their post-work-out warm-down, a soft-sanded warm-up area and three different types of gallops with various jumps. The only thing that isn't purpose-built is the office portacabin where the humans spend their time plotting entries and keeping passports up to date.
There's nothing traditional about Elliott's route to the top of the National Hunt tree. His father was a panel beater and his mother a housewife. There was no silver spoon, no scaffolding on which this empire was built. Instead there's hard work and the good fortune to be smart and hard-working.
He worked weekends from the age of 13 at Tony Martin's before becoming a jockey. A decent amateur career while working away and learning the ropes of training gave him the idea of getting some horses for himself. Before he had trained his first winner in Ireland, he won the Grand National at Aintree with a 33/1 shot, Silver Birch. He was 29. Realising his horses weren't good enough to win consistently in Ireland, he targeted Scottish tracks and built a reputation as a winner. It was a shrewdness that has allowed him to build his portfolio to the point where he's got every chance of being Ireland's champion trainer. An incredible success story in an industry that has plenty of barriers to entry.
Every morning at 7.30am his riders arrive and check the board to see which horses they'll ride out. There's calm everywhere; even as the rain lashes down, the air is calm. The little army of horses goes from the warm-up on sand in a gentle circular stroll before heading up to canter around a two-furlong track of heavy sand. This is where the meat of the fitness and conditioning work is done. To our untrained eyes the horses all appear to be going along with much the same joie de vivre as each other, let alone telling them apart. How do you know when they're ready? Elliott laughs and starts to talk and realises it's a question he knows the answer to but doesn't really know how to answer. "Ah, it's . . . well, I can't really tell you how we know, but we'd look at them and just kinda know."
There's science here too in the weights of the horses and the hours spent in the company of the animals on a daily basis, slowly conditioning their temperaments. There's knowledge in the combined wisdom of the same people riding out horses over the same track every day of the racing season, noticing tics and traits, but really this is art. There's no other life for the people in racing; every day the horses need to be worked or cleaned out or tended to. There's always a meeting to be planned for or another horse to see or a race to analyse.
You ask about the commitment and the time involved, and all the questions you need to know to fully understand this curious symbiotic relationship between horse and man, but really they're the concerns of a person who hasn't yet fallen in love with the life of racing horses.
The artist, though, just continues to chisel away at the marble, shrugging. Busy creating a masterpiece while we're all wondering why.
* * * * *
The car journey from the Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, Minnesota, to the local hospital was grim, though it could have been much worse. Bernard Dunne's hands were hurt and he could barely hold the phone as he called home to Ireland to tell his family the story of his last fight in America. The bleeding had mostly stopped.
It was a hot night, August 19, 2004, when 25-year-old Dunne fought Adrian Valdez, a southpaw from Juarez, Mexico, in Dunne's last fight with Freddie Roach as trainer. It was live on ShoBox. It was the very edge of the big time, an opportunity to ignite his standing in the US and here in Europe. His contract with Sugar Ray Leonard and thus his access to the ESPN deal that Leonard had was coming to an end, so only a convincing win would catapult him to the big-money fights quickly. Even before he took to the ring, things went awry.
Dunne co-headlined alongside local Minneapolis boy Matt Vanda, then a 31-and-nought super-welterweight with genuine superstar ambitions. Vanda fought first, presumably with the intention of an early knockout and raising the temperature still higher. He was leaden-footed throughout the fight and easily taken out by an unheralded Latino, Armando Velardez, in eight rounds. The home crowd booed and streamed out the doors in massive numbers, lending a surreal air to the build-up to Dunne's fight. The omens were bad even before Valdez stormed across the ring and headbutted Dunne in the first minute, causing blood to spurt vertically from the Irishman's head. It was then that everyone present knew a second script had been torn up.
Dunne's response was visceral. As a 13-and-nought fighter with a string of knockouts that'd be perfect for the YouTube age, he was everything ESPN, Sugar Ray Leonard and ShoBox wanted for boxing in the early part of the new millennium - cocky, clever and able to back it up in the ring. The gash caused blood to stream down his face, so much so that Roach was pre-occupied between rounds in the corner with stemming the flow. Things looked grim. Dunne's book describes what happened next:
"Everything is happening instinctively. You don't have to think about unleashing a right hand. It just comes. It will get to the stage where you are surviving purely off instinct. At the same time I am analysing every reflexive move he makes. Every twitch. My actions don't require conscious thought any more."
That night, his team sat in the waiting room of the hospital after he had ground out a unanimous points decision miles from home, his body aching from head to toe. It's hard to understand what drives someone to strive for this or to accept that this is part of life. It's not money that gets you out of bed, it can't be fame that forces you to risk your body, that's all too far away to be real. It's either a crazy dream. Or it's art.
Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's Off the Ball show
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