Show jumping mourns Paul Darragh
IRELAND'S show jumping community was united in grief yesterday following the sudden death of former team star Paul Darragh who passed away at his home in Waterside Stud in Co Meath on Monday evening.
The 51-year-old Dublin-born rider became a household name during the glory days of the 1970s when, along with Eddie Macken, Capt Con Power and James Kernan, the Irish team secured three consecutive Aga Khan Cup victories while also blazing a trail through the international circuit.
He maintained his profile throughout the 1980s and '90s and in recent years had dedicated himself to training riders, at home and abroad.
Amongst his most high-profile students were current world champion Dermott Lennon and HRH Princess Haya of Jordan who yesterday said: "I don't know anyone else who had such a long ongoing chapter in their sporting life encompassing several generations and playing such a significant role in the history of their country."
Paul was born in Killiney, Co Dublin in April 1953 and by the time he was nine years of age was already competing with his famous pony Peggy Sue.
One of his biggest rivals at the time was Con Power, who competed with his pony Granard Boy which was bought from the Macken family in Granard, Co Longford.
Paul trained with Iris Kellett from the age of 10 and developed a unique stylishness in the saddle which he maintained right to the end of his career.
In his teenage years, he won medals at three Junior European Championships including team gold in Hickstead in 1970 and while contracted to ride for the semi-state body Bord na gCapall in 1972/73, he worked with the world-famous Polish trainer Col Wladislaw Zgorelski before moving on to Harvey Smith's yard in Yorkshire for almost two years.
He rode many great horses including Iris Kellett's Pele with which he won the Hickstead Derby in 1975 and by the mid-1970s had joined Eddie Macken to compete under the banner of the tobacco company PJ Carroll in a sponsorship deal that ran for 12 long and very successful years.
Riding a horse originally called Nuxer but renamed PJ Carroll, he became one of the most formidable speed riders in the world, notching up almost 100 victories, but it was his partnership with the great mare Heather Honey that is probably best remembered.
They were the perfect combination: both were small in stature but fiery and filled with determination.
"Paul's competitive edge was his killer instinct," Con Power said yesterday. "No matter how hot the class was he was always going out there to win. On a big galloping track PJ Carroll was near enough to unbeatable but Heather Honey was his ace card. They both went out there to give it a full lash, nothing less would ever be good enough."
Paul competed in the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 and in 1994 began training both Princess Haya, King Hussein's young daughter who had big ambitions in the sport, and her Team Harmony string of horses at his base in Waterside Stud where he ran a hugely successful training, sales and breeding business with his close friend Alaine Storme.
With Princess Haya's Cera and Scandal, Paul found himself right back at the cutting edge and he enjoyed a superb year in 1996 which concluded with victory in the World Cup qualifier in Seville, Spain.
The following year he steered Scandal to a double-clear which clinched yet another Aga Khan Cup for Ireland and his qualities as a team rider were recalled yesterday by James Kernan.
"Everything he did, he did to benefit Ireland and Irish show jumping. He always held back with his horses in the early days of a show because he wanted to keep his best possible performances for the Nations Cup class later in the week," he explained.
"I remember us all feeling very sorry for ourselves when competing in a Nations Cup in Rotterdam. We finished the first round with three fences down and our chef d'equipe Sean Daly was not at all happy. Then Paul went out first in the second round and jumped a brilliant clear with Heather Honey that inspired the rest of us. He turned the whole competition around and we came out the winners at the end of the day but it was his determination not to give in that changed everything."
When Princess Haya moved on to Europe, Paul continued to train and Dermott Lennon, who went on to win the World title at Jerez in 2001, was his pupil for over a year while, more recently, Irish-based Marie Burke and her stallion Chippison have been benefiting from Darragh's expertise as they have worked their way steadily up to the top level of the sport.
Tributes have been pouring in for this man whose influence on the sport of show jumping has extended over almost 40 years and Dr Austin Mescal, president of the RDS, yesterday said that Paul "raised the profile of Irish equestrianism both here and abroad. In addition to his many successes as a rider, both individually and as part of the Irish team, Paul also proved a talented trainer, breeder and advisor. He was a member of the Society for over 30 years and served on the Equestrian Committee where he contributed very significantly to our equestrian activities including the annual Dublin Horse Show in which he competed on 36 occasions."
Equestrian Federation of Ireland president Avril Doyle said yesterday: "It was a great shock to learn of Paul's untimely death. He will be remembered as one of this country's show jumping greats for his talent, commitment and professionalism and his achievements on both the national and international stages stand as his testimony."
"He had great dash and style in everything he did and he was a great person," added James Kernan whose friendship with his fellow-rider continued from their very first encounter on a team together back in 1972.
"If you ever had a problem you always knew you could just pick up the phone and he would be there ready to listen to you. He was a great adviser; he'd think about things and come back to you with a solution. He always wanted to help," he explained.
"You couldn't help but enjoy yourself when you were with Paul," Con Power pointed out. "We were great rivals but we could still be great friends and his sense of team spirit was second to none."
"The thing that struck me since I heard about Paul's sudden death is that as far as training went, it was not what he enjoyed most; he was an excellent trainer but it was the smallest part of the puzzle of his life," said Princess Haya last night.
"By the time I arrived at Waterside, Pele and Heather Honey were already retired to the field for some time. I knew Paul by his reputation as one of the world's greatest speed riders and for his versatility. It is the mark of a really good rider when he gets on well with many different types of horses and my two, Cera and Scandal, were completely different to each other but he was brilliant with both of them," she said.
"His horses, his family and his country were his great passions in life and even though I had moved on by the time the World Equestrian Games took place in Jerez in 2001 I asked him to work with me there as I knew my father, who had passed away by then, respected him so much. He was a wonderful trainer and it was the biggest thank you I could give him after all the work he done with me," she explained.
"The best tribute to Paul now would be for Ireland to continue to take pride in Irish show jumping and to return it once more to the great sport it has always been."
Paul Darragh is survived by his wife Jane and three children, Linda, Amy and Andrew.
His removal to Rathfeigh Church, Tara, Co Meath takes place tomorrow at 4pm, with the funeral mass at 11am on Friday.