Friday 20 April 2018

Tale of horses and hope relayed through unvarnished voices

It won't make you take up illegal racing, but you will learn why others do

At the end of the Mullingar showdown, one owner gets to say, 'It's not their road, it's my road'
At the end of the Mullingar showdown, one owner gets to say, 'It's not their road, it's my road'

Eamonn Sweeney

Ireland's Sulky Racers will be broadcast by RTé2 on Thursday night at 9.30

It's sport Jim but not as we know it. Ireland's Sulky Racers, which goes out on Thursday, is unlike any other sports documentary I've seen. It follows the devotees of horse races which by and large take place in the early hours of the morning on main roads because of their illegal status. The horses are driven by a rider perched in the titular sulky.

The immediate fascination of the documentary lies in its portrayal of a world absolutely alien to most of us. But what makes it special, and Ireland's Sulky Racers is as good a sports programme as you'll see, is that it manages to get across the excitement which makes the races so appealing to their followers and participants.

It does this by telling the story from their point of view. There is no intrusive voiceover narration, no talking heads looking at the thing from outside. The protagonists tell their own tale and that in itself makes the documentary unusual. The microphone is handed to the kind of people whose unvarnished voices don't often turn up on the airwaves.

The sport's patrons are, estimates Eddie, an affable and thoughtful Dub who serves as our guide to the world of illegal racing, 50 per cent Traveller and 50 per cent non-Traveller. Eddie, who's up at 4.30 in the morning before he goes to work to look after his horses, emerges as the star of the show, not least because while he loves the sport he doesn't deny its problematic side, admitting that: "The people that do be at it don't make it look too good."

The director Martin Danneels resists not just the temptation to moralise but also the temptation to sentimentalise. This is a rough and ready milieu and on a couple of occasions it's obvious that it would take very little to make things kick off in a pretty unsavoury manner.

Yet if liberal pieties are absent, so too is bourgeois finger-wagging. It's the first time, for example, that I've seen someone from Moyross, a part of Limerick city normally portrayed as being on a par with the less salubrious townlands of Afghanistan, speak about what makes them happy. In the case of Teabag, the man in question, it's horses and the hope that getting involved with them will keep his kids out of the kind of trouble he alludes to in his own past. "If they hadn't the horses what would they have?" he says while the kids dream of becoming jockeys.

There's a guy from Clonlara who's been inspired by the races to go into adult education to learn to read and write so he can find out more about horses. And there's Dermot, an obviously troubled man who finds horses help him tackle the 'dark side', declaring: "To go off with a horse, Sam, he's done thousands of miles and listened to thousands of problems and never spoke to anyone about them." In fact, all the protagonists bear out the fact that there is nothing more interesting than listening to someone talk about something they passionately love.

Ireland's Sulky Racers might not persuade you to take up illegal road racing, but it will show you why other people have. You need to watch it without prejudice and if you can't do that you might be better off with one of TV3's fine crop of Traveller Terror documentaries.

It all builds up to a clash between the big two, Butterfly and Big Show, with the cognoscenti gathering at 4.0am on the outskirts of Mullingar for their equivalent of the clash between Seabiscuit and Man O'War. There is also Eddie's hope that his mare will give birth to the most prized possession in this world, a coloured, i.e. piebald or skewbald, pony.

Midas Productions, who made Ireland's Sulky Racers, have a hugely impressive track record, giving us Home from Home, the story of the GAA overseas, and the fine history of Irish amateur boxing, Tales from a Neutral Corner. But Ireland's Sulky Racers could be their best work yet. Love its protagonists or hate them, you won't be bored by them.

It's so good it makes me wish Midas, or someone else, might do something similar for foxhunting and hare coursing, sports that while legal and followed by very different sections of the population, get just as bum a rap from the mainstream media as the sulky races.

At the end of the Mullingar showdown one owner gets to say, "It's not their road, it's my road," while Eddie finds out if he's been lucky with the foal. But perhaps the two comments which sum the film up come from a Limerick kid, "Life is boring without a horse," and a Dublin owner, "Rules are made to be broken." This is how they roll.

Watch it.

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