Saturday 19 October 2019

Listowel Races, the people's meeting, where the best of times are guaranteed


Ellie Mac’s owner John Schuster (left) and connections with jockey Rachael Blackmore and trainer Henry de Bromhead (right) after the horse finished runner-up in yesterday’s Mares Novice Listowel. Photo: Healy Racing
Ellie Mac’s owner John Schuster (left) and connections with jockey Rachael Blackmore and trainer Henry de Bromhead (right) after the horse finished runner-up in yesterday’s Mares Novice Listowel. Photo: Healy Racing
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

It's Saturday - the night before the race. Ellie Mac was the first one to bed. She lay down in her stable by the River Feale and slept to the soothing sounds of water flowing over stone.

The neighbours had been coming home all week. From Australia mostly, and a good few of the older lads from America landed down the road in Shannon. Then our people returned from England over the weekend.

It's the annual homecoming for the Listowel Races. I love these first few days. Lads I was at school with drop in. Within seconds it's as if we were still back in St Mike's. Like as they never left. But they did. In their thousands.

I'm upstairs now over the pub looking out at Market Street.

The Moriartys put up the rows of shiny lights. And the primary colours are bobbing in the breezes. Sean Moriarty passes by.

I shout out the window: "Hey Sean, the fourteenth light on the ninth row is gone out." For a second he looks around and then he knows and walks away home for the supper.

Behind him in the old cattle market Bird's Amusement's big dipper digs its beak like a Texan oil well. I can nearly hear the screams from our front window. Birds are our Disneyland, our Las Vegas and I'll be bringing my little niece Lily over to The Market. She's eight and I wonder if she will still love the merry-go-rounds or has she gone too big for them now.

I put on the fire. The hard, dry black turf lights up the room into life. The cousins will be staying over. I think then of Sean Moriarty's rules. Sean would never see anyone stuck for a bed and he never charges. It's part of the tradition here to look after the visitors. Sean's three terms and conditions for his guests are strict. "No smoking, no breakfast and no sex."

I get word the Ellie Macs have arrived. Ellie Mac runs tomorrow in the Cheesestrings Novice Chase. She's owned by the Niccolai Schuster Racing syndicate, made up of Nicc's school pals from St Mary's and his family. Nicc died when the balcony collapsed in Berkeley. He loved the races. My Aunty, Peg Keane, was his grandmother.

Ellie needs good ground so I put out The Infant De Prague - a holy statue used to ward off rain. Nicc's pals tell me they are just back from Prague and they saw the Infant in person. Surely a sign and there was another. Nicc's Granddad John lived in Prague. The rain stops.

But Ellie is up against it. Willie Mullins has three in the race. Ellie is 14/1 but soon the odds will tumble.

Race Day Sunday.

The Infant only works shift. It's raining again. I dress up in blue of St Marys and the red of Bayern Munich, Nicc's teams.

Listowel is the people's meeting and the harvest festival. The turf, hay and silage are home now. In the hurling lands, the corn is safely stored in the giant silos. Old friends return and we take a roll call of those who have departed.

I'm sad for my dad who loved the Listowel Races. Dad would be practising his songs for weeks before. He sang while shaving.


Ellie is buzzed before the race. All the Cahersiveen O'Connor cousins are here, along with Nicc's dad John and his mom Graziella. John and Graz keep the spirits up. The last time we were all together was at the funeral of our uncle Denis just a few months ago.

Ellie is going off her head but that's when she's at her best.

We meet Henry de Bromhead, one of the greatest trainers there is. He tells us the ground is dead. Ellie needs it faster but she's fit and big for a mare. Ellie tries to break free. She rears, kicks and bucks.

They go off at a furious pace and Ellie jumps very well. The Paul Townend-ridden Camelia de Cotte is the hot favourite and she looks all over a winner coming in to the straight. But Ellie stays and stays. The fans are going crazy. Go on Ellie. Please, please. But try as she might and brilliant as Rachel Blackmore rode, the winning post came too soon. And Paul Townend rode a perfect race.

The syndicate cheered as if Ellie had won the Grand National. For John and Graz, it was all about putting on a show on home ground. All about a coming together on a happy occasion. All about sportsmanship and the taking part.

Henry de Bromhead was pleased. "We might come back here next year for The Guinness Kerry National," he says. "Ellie stays and stays. The longer the better."

Rachel Blackmore was happy. "She jumped really well but she hit the third-last." The non-whingers syndicate thank Rachel. She's smothered in hugs.

"I'll bet that's the first time you ever got such a welcome when you finished second," says Henry.

I was on my way over the bridge to back home when the prices were called out. Ellie was backed from 14s in to 4s but there was no big bets. This was fivers and twos and one-euro bets by the locals and the whole of St Mary's. Our friends wanted to share in the memory of Nicc, who was a joy and full of his fun.

It was some communal punt.

As I was leaving the course I meet Liam Sheahan, whose cousin Aoife Beary was seriously injured in the Berkeley tragedy. When I was a boy the horses were led from the Dublin train in to Aoife's ancestral pub, just up from John B's. Aoife's dad Mickey, a fine fellow, is also from Listowel.

Aoife Beary spoke to the Californian senate and swung the vote to force builders who have had negligence claims to declare same. Thanks to Aoife's bravery, as well as her eloquence, lives will be saved.

Too late for Nicc and the five more who died, but there is life after death when we remember those we love in the places they would love to be.

I'm off to pull pints for a week and I'll be telling stories of how John, Graz and Alexi - Nicc's younger brother - are trying to come to terms with their grief. The family and friends unite behind the common cause of having fun with Ellie, the people's mare, here at the people's racecourse, in the town their Nicc loved so well.

Irish Independent

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