In the pipeline for the last 4 years, my recent European adventure was originally instigated by my mum as a trip to Paris for Benji’s 10th birthday present (spoilt grandchild much?!) But with my Irish ancestory and a new found interest in international racing, I may have slightly hijacked the itinerary by adding on a visit to the Emerald Isle.
It sounds so cliché but Ireland’s scenery is truly nothing short of breathtaking. Rolling hills, clear streams, ancient ruins, cloud-scattered skies and a checkerboard of green. So.Much.Green. It really drove home just how brown and drought-stricken we are here.
I was fortunate enough to visit a number of amazing stables and studs. Self-sufficient farms with gorgeous country-style manors, manicured gardens and matching barns housing some of the world’s best stallions and racehorses. Wide undulating training tracks, state of the art facilities, lush paddocks shared with cattle and sheep and staff who are as professional and dedicated as they are friendly.
Our first Irish raceday experience was with 37,000 other racegoers on the 5th and final day of the Punchestown Jumps Festival. Forget the token pony rides and jumping castle, the free entertainment and activities on offer for their heavily promoted Family Day would put the Royal Melbourne Show to shame!
County Kildare is also the home of Ireland’s most prestigious flat racecourse, The Curragh. Our accommodation backed onto the training yard of Johnny Levins, who warmly welcomed us to the stable and was only too happy to show us around. Little did Johnny know he was about to get a shadow for the next 3 days, in the form of an inquisitive 10 year old boy! Beginning his racing career as a flat jockey, Johnny transitioned to jumps, then in 2013 transitioned again to his main ambition of trainer. His is only a small team, but one you sense is determined to succeed.
The Curragh Racecourse, with its brand new grandstand, sits on The Curragh Plains, vast public grasslands that are shared by horse, human, dog and sheep. The Training Grounds provide 1,500 acres of world-class training facilities including 112km of grass tracks, 19km of peat tracks, 8 different all-weather tracks and a 400m schooling strip for jumps training. These grounds have been fundamental to the careers of many great racehorses including Melbourne Cup winners Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle.
Morning work starts at the reasonable hour of 7am. In the crisp country air, Johnny’s horses make the short walk through the open paddocks up to The Curragh’s gallop tracks. He shares the facilities with around 10 other local trainers. Like kids in a toy store, we were in awe of our surroundings and Benji has promised Johnny he’ll be heading back over once he’s got his apprentice licence!
For all the familiarity of raceday, there are also many differences. Horses are stabled away from public view so the first time you see them is in the mounting yard… and don’t expect them to be in number order! The jockeys room sits outside the mounting yard enclosure, meaning the jockeys have to walk through the crowd to get to their mounts. They part to let them through, shouting cheers of good luck, coupled with a few selfie attempts. There are no clerk of the course horses. Racecallers don’t have quite the same zest as ours and they stop calling the placegetters after the first five have crossed the line. The fashion is a little more casual and everyone has a drink in their hand, but the party isn’t the reason they’re trackside.
There’s something else different in the air. There’s a connection, a love, a deep-seated respect for not just the sport, but for the animal that has played such an intrinsic part in Ireland’s long history. It’s a feeling that is next level to anything I’ve ever experienced back home and I spent most of my time just trying to soak it all in.
After the potato famine devastated so much of Ireland, my family left their farm in County Tipperary in 1854 and boarded the Marco Polo bound for Australia.
I’d been set the task by my Aunt Colleen to find what was left of the medieval town Latteragh, the home of my ancestors. Overhearing our plans as we poured over a map at breakfast one morning, the café owner asked my surname. “Oh my dear!” she laughed. “There’s hundreds of you!” Whilst my family history after their arrival to Victoria has been well documented, there’s not much known about our history on the homeland. I may have just found another excuse to venture back!
From top left: We found Latteragh, heading out to morning trackwork at The Curragh,
The Curragh's imposing new grandstand, meeting the horses at Johnny Levins' yard.