Friday 23 February 2018

Up close and personal in racing's purest form

Point-to-point meetings are community events where you might spot a future Cheltenham hero

Jamie Codd: ‘People do it for the buzz. They are working all week and they get a kick out of it’. Photo: Healy Racing.
Jamie Codd: ‘People do it for the buzz. They are working all week and they get a kick out of it’. Photo: Healy Racing.

Aisling Crowe

Oiche Shamhna, when the borders between the world we know and the hidden universes collapse and na taibhsí are free to walk amongst the living, as the old year slips away and the new one begins in darkness.

At Dowth in Co Meath on this Halloween weekend, the new point to point season has its first major celebration, in this ancient place, sacred and mysterious, which has stood witness to the setting of the Celtic sun on October 31 for millennia. Perhaps the ghosts of horses past will race, unbidden and unseen, once more across the three-mile track of Dowth Hall, where racing first was recorded in the early 1700s.

Reigning champion Jamie Codd will have three rides at this afternoon's meeting as he goes in search of a third jockeys' crown. Who better to explain the mystique and lure of the point-to-point meeting where past, present and future defy the laws of time to exist together in the same moment?

"It's the rush of it," says the Wexford man. "This is the grass-roots of racing, where it all began and where it all begins. Racing originally was from church steeple to church steeple, from Doneraile to Buttevant, and point-to-pointing keeps that tradition going. It is the local farmers, local community coming together and there is something pure about it. Point-to-pointing is a way of life and it is a great day out. It allows people to get up close and personal with the horses, jockeys and action in a way that you can't get on the track. It is access all areas and is really pure."

The races are organised by local hunt club committees, and the Meath and Tara Point to Point Committee are responsible for running today's event at Dowth Hall. Racing at the demesne was revived last year by the committee and the estate's new owners, the Brennan family, owners of Devenish Nutrition.

Dowth Hall is also the birthplace of some of chasing's historic names, as the Gradwell family, who owned the house at one time, were enthusiastic racing people and bred Drogheda, winner of the 1898 Grand National at Aintree.

The jockeys in the Open race this afternoon will be vying for the Gradwell Trophy, a historic Irish silver trophy of 200 years ago, and donated by the family to use for the point to point. A horse to join Drogheda on Aintree's roll of honour could race at Dowth this afternoon, as many National Hunt greats begin their racing career on the point to point field.

Codd says: "It provides an education for young horses and it is where they start their careers but older racehorses can come back in the open races and enjoy themselves. It works in both ways. This afternoon in the four- and five-year-old maiden races there could be potential Cheltenham winners, and in the open race there might be an older horse who has already won at Cheltenham."

The races are run by volunteers; stewards, including Irish Olympic Three Day Eventer and Grand National-placed amateur jockey Tony Cameron whose family formerly owned Dowth Hall, are unpaid and the jockeys are amateur.

They range from Aileen O'Sullivan, current ladies' champion who works in the bank full-time and races at the weekends, fitting in riding out for Meath trainer Gavin Cromwell around her work schedule, to Codd, who rides out for trainers including his brother Willie and Gordon Elliott and works as an agent for Tattersalls Ireland.

His job involves inspecting young point-to-point horses for boutique sales at Ascot and Cheltenham, where the best are bought for six-figure sums. Codd will be on the lookout for future stars at Dowth this afternoon, so if you've got a champion to sell, nab the champion jockey.

"People do it for the buzz, they are working during the week and they get a kick out of it," says the new father. "I am lucky, my job coincides with racing but there are so many more riders like Aileen who this is a hobby for. I ride in bumpers on the track and we are also allowed ride against professionals in 21 races but our riding fee for those races goes straight to the Injured Jockeys' Fund.

"We would be fitter and riding a good bit more in races but for a lot of people involved in this sport it is their hobby. It is a tough hobby to have but other people go motor racing at the weekends, or cycling; Aileen and the others go racing."

Codd's rivalry with Derek O'Connor has defined both of their point-to-point careers with the Lingstown rider playing Richard Johnson to the Galwayman's AP McCoy. Codd has managed to beat the 11-time champion to the title twice but they have spurred each other on to greatness. O'Connor has won more point to points than any jockey in history, while Codd was the first man to win all seven races on the one card.

"We have driven each other on to reach those heights. When you're competing against someone like Derek, it raises the bar, it drives you forward. You want to be better than the other man so it pushes you to compete even harder," Codd says.

Five Cheltenham Festival winners, the Aintree Foxhunters this year, his first Galway festival winner in the summer and a Grade One win at the Punchestown Festival in 2014 for his old boss Willie Mullins all underline the talent of the Wexford rider, who along with his rivals, takes on all of this risk for the thrill of racing and the glory of winning.

In the hoofprints of the ancients at this bewitching time of year, the Corinthian spirit can be found in Dowth Hall among the legends and the ghosts of mythical Ireland.

For more information on the meeting or to buy tickets visit Tickets for racing and the Country Fair, which includes the Boyne Valley Artisan Food Fair, cost €10

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