Monday marks what would normally be one of my favourite days of the racing year. The Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. This year should have marked the 150th Irish Grand National, hopefully, the race will be run in autumn. The Easter Monday race is always keenly anticipated. For me, it evokes wonderful childhood memories. My father Jim and mother Pauline always took myself and my other siblings to Fairyhouse on Easter Monday. These journeys were conducted in a Renault 4 then 12, followed by a Ford Granada and Sierra. The cars were always packed with the family as it grew and an industrial size picnic made by our mother. The other essential item was as many Easter eggs as you could get into the car. We would always get to the races early parking at the second last fence early in the home straight it is now the third last. Dad drummed it into us that the fence on the landing side was slightly downhill and the race could often change at the point. It is a fence I still watch out for now. Aside from the Easter eggs, the other essential item was a portable radio for the RTE commentary.
Once we had parked up, my mother would be getting the picnic-ready with usually a toddler Ronan to mind. My father, I and my younger brother Dave would then hop over the rail and do a full course walk. In those days things were far more relaxed as regards this kind of stuff. On these course walks, we learned about the difference between plain fences and regulation fences (open ditches). It also gave us a great understanding of the complex nature of some fences. We also learned basic stuff like the difference between hurdles and fences. Also the length of grass on a racecourse. The other interesting thing from year to year was the going a dry Easter the ground would be far quicker a wet Easter much softer. I suppose unknown to ourselves we were learning in a fun almost adventure way valuable racing lessons. After the full course lap, it was back to the picnic. Surrounding our picnic area would be fairgrounds, bookmakers (lots of them) and outbuildings with Tote windows. I used to stand watching the bookmakers doing tic tac shouting " Come on lads who knows it" "take 5/4" "Let them in let them out". I remember thinking I cant wait to either be the man standing on the box shouting the odds or be one of the people "who knew it". Bookmakers add so much colour to the races. I was impressed by them. Our bets were, of course, small if we had any bet at all at this time. There was always a family competition for who could get the most winners 5 points for a winner, 3 points for second and 1 for third. This was a hard-fought contest.
The horses and jockeys would appear. The silks magnificent glistening in the spring sunshine along with the jockeys shiny boots. The horses seemed like giants almost mythical creatures. The coats shining, so big, so powerful, so fast and incredibly brave at the fences. I loved everything about the horses from the smell to their sheer presence. I remember when they came hurtling past our spot jumping the second last fence. The jockeys shouting at the horses and other jockeys. The sound of the horse's hoofs, the flick of the birch as the horses parted it, the cracks of the whips. What struck me was how fast they had gone by. It also made me appreciate even as a very young boy that both horse and jockey had to do it together. Total commitment from both all or nothing. For days afterwards, I would replay what I saw in my head seeing the horses and jockeys flying over the fences. We would change vantage point for the big race, in the later stages of the 1980s. Dad said it was very hard to see 30 horses so close in the National. So we would hop the rail walk up the straight and clamber up on the Jameson advertising boards at the top of the straight. Many spectators did likewise. You had a great view of the third last fence (now the fourth last). You had a lot of time to pick your horse up as they came down from Ballyhack. It also unknown to ourselves was teaching you how to understand how your horse was going as well as the rest of the field. The portable radio was essential to know how the finish went!! This was a family tradition from 1982 until 1990.
At that point with everyone a little bit older we started to go inside to the enclosures. My mum and dad had two little girls Helen and Lynn both very young so they stayed at home with mum. It became a boys day with dad, myself and my two brothers. The Betting came into it a little more as we became older and started to punt a bit. However, it is those early days from 1982 - 1990 I have the fondest memories of. We used to only go racing once a year at that point on Easter Monday. The rest of the year it would be TV only. I loved every minute of those Easter Mondays. I am very grateful to my Father and Mother for taking us on those trips. It instilled a love of the sport in myself, however, it also gave me a great basic education in the sport. Without knowing it having seen the action up close I learned a lot. I did get a very hard lesson early on. At the 1984 race. My mother was trying to pick her selection in the race. Mum said look at Bentom Boy number 18 he has a girl jockey, Ann Ferris. I said Mum I would stick to the horse's number 1 to 10 they have a better chance. Bentom Boy whizzed passed me in the lead on the run to the second last, he had three horses chasing him to the second last all of whom fell. So Dads warning about the second last being a dangerous fence came through, my chance of getting off the hook with my mother went with the there fallers. Bentom Boy won by miles and at a price bigger than 50/1 from memory. As I listened to the radio commentary. I felt terrible, just terrible. Disaster I had talked my mother out of backing Bentom Boy. My Dad and brother Dave were giving me plenty of stick on the walk back, which was no help. I got back to the picnic table said sorry Mum who said: " That's the way it goes Derek that's life". Whenever I make a strong case for a horse to Dad he still says to this day " Is this another Bentom Boy moment son". As I said already a good education in racing.
The race itself has an amazing history first run in 1870 won by a horse called Sir Robert Peel. The Irish Grand National also featured in a major event in Irish History. The majority of the British soldiers were at Fairyhouse allowing the rebels a clear run to take over several key infrastructural buildings in Dublin during 1916 rising. The most successful horse in the history of the race is Brown Lad who won three times in 1975, 1976 and 1978 trained by Jim Dreaper. The most successful jockey in the history of the race is Pat Taffe who won the race six times. The leading trainer is Tom Dreaper who trained the winner of the race Ten times. The most famous horses to win the race were Fortria 1961, Arkle 1964, Flyinbolt 1966, Tied Cottage 1979, Rhyme N Reason 1985, Desert Orchid 1990, Bobbyjo 1998, and Numbersixvelverde 2005. I think the race that sticks out for me is the Desert Orchid win in 1990, he brought an amazing crowd to Fairyhouse. The build-up to the race was billed as a clash between Jim Dreapers precocious talent Carvill's Hill and Desert Orchid. The ground was too quick for Carvill's Hill so he was a non-runner. Desert Orchid was brilliant on the day giving two stone to the field, despite getting low at the last hew was twelve Lengths too good for Barney Barnett and Have A Barney.
Several winners of the Irish Grand National have also won its English counterpart at Aintree, but none in the same year. The first to complete the double was Ascetic's Silver, the winner of the latter version in 1906. The feat has been achieved more recently by Rhyme 'n' Reason, Bobbyjo and Numbersixvalverde. There have been some great family stories. Bentom Boy in 1984 Ann Ferris was the first female rider to win the race also riding for her father Willie Rooney. The win for Boobyjo in 1998 for Tommy and Paul Carberry. Commanche Court won for Ted and Ruby Walsh in 2000. Organisedconfusion won for Nina Carberry and her uncle Arthur Moore in 2011. There was a win for Katie Walsh on Thunder And Roses in 2015. Another notable winner was Flashing Steel for former Taoiseach Charle Haughey in 1995. It is a wonderful race, with a wonderful history. It will be missed on Easter Monday 2020, however, like all storms, this to will pass.