(Taken from the Book- Dukie- The Game of Life)
I would never count myself as a Horse Racing expert or avid follower. However I have been a regular at Roscommon Races over the years and enjoyed nothing more than an evening out at Lenebane. I would have dabbled in gambling , mostly with disastrous results, but nothing that would cause serious concern thankfully. I would also have attended many race meetings around the country in Galway, Leopardstown, Navan , Fairyhouse The Curragh and a number of other venues. It was always for social reasons. It ws a great place to meet loads of people and have a few drinks. It was good fun. When I was young and single a few days at the Galway racing festival was always on the calendar. The fun after the races every night was far more of an attraction for me! I was only in Listowel once but it was some craic. Everyone goes racing in Listowel during the day but stays in Ballybunion for the week. You would want to be in your health to stick a week at Listowel!
Despite having learned some harsh lessons about gambling, I was always interested in the big meetings like Cheltenham, Aintree, and Galway. Irish winners at Cheltenham and Aintree were revered and are the subject of sporting legend.
In the early 90’s a horse called Montelado, which carried the famous Roscommon Primrose and Blue colours was owned by a local quartet compromising of vet Donie O’Rourke from Castlerea, who also bred the horse, solicitor Brian Neilan from Roscommon Town; JJ Fallon from Strokestown and a former employer and friend Ollie Hannon who was also from Roscommon Town. The horse was trained in County Waterford by Pat Flynn.
Ollie Hannon told me how they came to own the horse. “Donie O’Rourke bred him and a horse called Montelemar was the sire. John Joe Fallon from Strokestown was involved and at that stage he was diagnosed with cancer and he said to Donie and to Brian Neilan ‘I won’t see this horse running so get someone else’ and Brian asked me and that was it. They wanted me to name the horse and they said he could run in my colours”
“I wanted to associate the name with Montelimar and we came up with Montelado. In fact it was Montel- ado as in the Irish for two. We sent him down to Francie Kearins in Sligo and he broke him and we decided that we would contact Dermot Weld to see would he train him. We brought him up to Dermot Weld and he told us to bring him home and give him road work to do.”
“We did that and we brought him back to Dermot Weld and he advised us to geld the horse and bring him back ready to run at the end of the year. Myself and Brian Neilan got involved in another horse that summer called The Dara Queen and it was trained by Pat Flynn down in Waterford and when we were chatting to him we asked him about Montelado and that’s how he ended up being trained by Pat Flynn” he told me
Ollie also explained where he got his colours which of course were the Roscommon colours of Primrose and Blue. “The colours were actually my fathers’ colours and when he passed on the Turf Club handed them on to e, It was great to have the Roscommon colours on him.”
There wasn’t much fanfare when Montelado won a ‘bumper’ in Thurles in November 1991 but when he followed up with a very impressive win at the Limerick Christmas people started to take notice. “We didn’t know what to expect the first day out. He was ridden by Philip Fenton and he won nicely and I hadn’t a shilling on him.” Ollie told me. “The second day in Limerick was a winners’ bumper. After that race Pat Flynn said to us I suppose you will want to go to Cheltenham now and we were very excited about that.” He said.
It was decided that Montelado would take his chance in the Cheltenham ‘bumper’ in March. The idea to hold a Champion Bumper was a new concept at the festival and it was the very last race of the (then) three day meeting. The field for the race was littered with top class horses.
“The authorities changed the rule with regard to professional jockeys being allowed to ride in the bumper at the festival so all the best pilots were available. We (the owners) didn’t know who would be riding the horse but Pat Flynn had booked Richard Dunwoody.”
The Aidan O’Brien trained Tiannamen Square owned by Dermot Desmond was the hot favourite. Ollie Hannon remembers the day so well. “It was the last race and while there was great racing on, I wasn’t too interested in it. Richard Dunwoody didn’t have a winner during the meeting.” But, ridden by Doonwoody, Montelado’s famous colours flew up the hill and obliterated the field to win by 12 lengths. It was an awesome display and commentators were salivating after wards. Another National Hunt superstar was born.
“We travelled to the meeting in a confident mood but we would have been very happy with second or third. I wasn’t watching our horse, I was looking for the rest to come to challenge but it never happened. It was a magical day for sure.” he said
Back in Roscommon Town the scene was incredible. There was no TV coverage of every race at that stage but there was commentary in the bookie offices. There were three or four bookies premises in the town at that time and all were bursting at the seams as locals strained to hear how Montelado was doing. The cheers started long before the race was ended as hundreds of people got ready to cash in. It was something that I had never seen since or before. It was like the whole town was on.
It was a long night after that spectacular win. Most people who bet on horses lose money, But not that evening. There was a session to beat all sessions in the pubs of the town that night. We adjourned to Tom Lyons’ pub in Church Street. The atmosphere was mighty. The Central Bar was the watering hole where Ollie Hannon and Brian Neilan frequented. It was packed too.
Montelado won twice later that year at Thurles (a flat race) which was a top class event, and again at Limerick (his maiden hurdle) and there was genuine excitement as to where he would surface in 1993 because clearly this was a class act. He hit a hurdle while winning at Limerick and was out injured for a couple of months. It was an injury that was to come back to trouble him in the future.
Trainer Pat Flynn decided that one prep race would be good enough before Cheltenham and he ran really well on his seasonal re-appearance at Leopardstown and was second to the highly rated Bayrouge at the Christmas meeting.
Montelado was entered for the opening race at Cheltenham 1993, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Most winners of this Grade One event go on to contest (and often win) the Champion Hurdle. Needless to say that field was top notch. The race was at 1.30pm on Tuesday 16th March 1993. There was live TV coverage. The pubs and bookie offices in Roscommon town were packed, everyone was ‘on’ once again.
Ollie Hannon paid tribute to the trainer of Montelado and his attention to detail. “Pat was so meticulous. He even brought over milk churns full of the water that the horse was used to drinking at home. He didn’t want to change anything of his diet. His attention to detail was superb.”
“He came up to the hotel where we were staying the day before and brought us down to see where the horse was stabled and that everything was right.” He told me
While Montelado’s performance in the 1992 Cheltenham race was spectacular, his performance in the ’93 Supreme was even better. Priced at 8/1 that morning, the horse was ridden by Charlie Swan. Ollie Hannon explained the change of jockey from Richard Dunwoody. “Peter Scudamore had retired and Martin Pipe booked had Richard Dunwoody for all his main horses so he was ruled out. Pat Flynn booked Charlie Swan and I told Pat that I wanted to chat to Char;ie before he went out on the course.”
On the day of the races Ollie says that he was on edge. “I was at the gates ready for them to open that morning and was one if the first people there. We met so many people. Boro Eight was the big Irish fancy that day. He was trained by Paddy Mullins. In the parade ring when we were chatting to Charlie Swan I called him aside and said to him, ‘Charlie you can not win this race by far enough.”
In fact Charlie Swan gave the horse an almost identical ride to that which Richard Dunwoody had given him 12 months earlier which saw him slaughter the field in the bumper. When the horses reached the top of the hill Swan arrived with a double handful. “When he got to the top of the hill he pressed the button and was gone”
Montelado just cruised by this top class field and sprinted away up the finishing straight to win by an astonishing 12 lengths. Even the seasoned TV commentators were stunned by his display.
Back in Roscommon Town there was mayhem once again as hundreds of people celebrated watching Montelado bring the racing world to it’s knees. In fact the horse broke the course record for the two mile hurdle distance that day and if the horse was entered in the Champion Hurdle which was run an hour later he would have won by 10 lengths. It was about a perfect a performance that you could wish to see. The Roscommon owned horse was now a racing superstar.
Back in the Cotswolds Ollie and the connections celebrated in style. “It was the first race of the first day but we never saw a horse or a race after that. We met so many people and I was interviewed by the late Colm Murray for RTE. We had such a great few days and of course the celebrations continued when we came back to Roscommon.”
The National Hunt world was now at the feet of Montelado. After that scintillating display he was immediately installed as the hot favourite to win the Champion Hurdle in 1994. However injury was to strike and Montelado was never the same horse after that. He was off the track for over two years with the tendon injury that first came to light in Limerick. He recovered to take his place in the 1995 Champion Hurdle but he was never in contention and finished 9th of 14 behind Alderbrook.
However there was one final kick in Montelado who won two flat races in late 1995 including the valuable Cesarawitch at The Curragh which demonstrated his class. Ollie recalls those two wins. “The first win was in Listowel and he re-discovered all his old speed that day and when he flew up the straight there was a gasp from the crowd who were there. It was a brilliant display. The race we won in Thurles a couple of years before meant we could enter these flat races. We entered him in the Curragh which was two miles and that was his distance. Mick Kinane rode him that day and he won in great style.”
But further injuries restricted the great horse to just one more outing in 1996 and he was retired after that. But few of us who were around will ever forget those two mighty days in Cheltenham when the ‘Roscommon WonderHorse’ ruled the Cotswolds. He made history that will probably never be repeated, the only horse ever to win successive races at the Cheltenham Festival!
Ollie Hannon summed it all up. “It was a fairy tale to be honest and incredible times. I saw an article a few years later in the Daily Telegraph and there was a really beautiful photograph of horses on a beach in Sligo and Montelado and a number of other well known horses who had retired were in the picture. They were being looked after by a man called McElhone who had problem-kids working with horses. It was a stunning photograph and I got the photographer to send me on a copy and it is a marvellous end to what was a magical career.” he concluded.
A number of friends were involved with horses over the years and we had great fun travelling to meetings to back them and it usually ended up with a sad story of what might have been. There was one memorable evening when three carloads left Roscommon Town to go to Mallow to back a horse called ‘Prince of Kafu’. It was owned by a few good friends of mine, including John O’Gara, Tony McManus, John Corcoran, Adrian Browne and Tommy Fagan.
There were 10 or 12 of us at the meeting that evening and we all had a good sized bet on the horse. It was looking good too until he was caught on the line and beaten by a short head. It was a very sad entourage that left County Cork that Monday evening. Looking back, maybe it was just as well that the horse was beaten. If the horse had won we never would have got home! But we had some fun on that memorable night.
However it was when my good friend and bookie Brian Keenan owned a horse called ‘Sir Oj’ that gave me a chance to experience the thrill of being at Cheltenham and Aintree and they will go down as two of the best sporting events that I have had the good fortune to attend.
Brian told me where he came upon the horse. “Actually that horse was a birthday present from my wife Ethel. She contacted a friend of ours Martin Lynch, a former successful national hunt jockey who lives outside Mullingar, to get a horse and it was a present for my 40th birthday. They bought the horse as an unbroken three year old. Martin Lynch ‘broke’ the horse and we gave him to Noel Meade to train him in County Meath.”
“He won his first race in October 2002 in Galway. It was a ‘bumper’ on a very wet day. But he didn’t run at all on 2003 because he got injured. He fractured his knee cap and I kept him at home that year out on the land in Ballymurray. But he recovered well and he went back to Noel Meade for 2004.”
“We put him hurdling and he won his first race on his return at Navan. He had a great year then in ’04 and he won four hurdles races. Then later in the year we decided to put him chasing and at the end of 2004 he won a big novice chase in Gowran Park and it was that day that we began to realise we had a good horse on our hands.” He won in Galway and again in Punchestown after that” he said
Sir Oj could also have won more as Brian explained. “We ran him in the big Novice Chase on St Stephen’s Day at Leopardstown and he came to the final fence leading by five or six lengths and the horse hit the fence and the jockey, Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden, was unseated. The horse didn’t fall but that was a disappointment however we knew that he was able to compete at the top level.” He told me
On the back of those excellent performances, he was entered in the Cheltenham Festival in 2005. It just so happened that Shannonside Radio decided that they would broadcast live from the Cheltenham racecourse on Tuesday 16th March, the same day as he ran.
For a couple of weeks beforehand as the Sports Editor in Shannonside I was dealing with the Cheltenham Racecourse manager Edward Gillespie who could not have been more co-operative. He promised us good access and a place to broadcast from too. I have to say that I was very excited about the trip to the Cotswolds.
Myself, Joe Finnegan and Eugene Murphy left on the Monday evening and we flew into Bristol and stayed in a local hotel. We were in bed early as we had planned to be at the course by 6.30am on Tuesday morning, the first day of the festival.
We were up at 5am and when we got to the course by 6am it was a hive of activity as trainers, jockeys and stable staff got the horses out for an early morning run. It was cold and crisp, but dry. I had a mini-disc recorder and we started doing interviews immediately. I spoke to Tom Taffe (who won the Gold Cup that year with Kicking King), Davy Russell, David Casey, Ruby Walsh and several other jockeys about the festival and their plans for the week.
I spotted Derek Thompson of Chanel 4 Racing and I interviewed him as we both walked down the famous Cheltenham Hill which runs to the winning post. He was really friendly and accommodating despite the fact that he was just about to go on air on their famous preview programme ‘The Morning Line’.
By the time that Joe Finnegan was ready to go on the air at 9.15am we had loads of interviews recorded but it was only the start of what was to be a momentous day. The atmosphere was electric as the crowds began to stream into the course from 10am. By 11.30 am there were about 25,000 people already there and it was still two hours to the first race! Bands were playing, the bars were packed and the craic was mighty. You just knew that you were at a very special event indeed.
We had incredible access to the weighing room, the owners and trainers bar and the parade ring. During that day we talked to many people that I had only ever seen on TV, legends of Horse Racing .We met Brough Scott, Claire Balding, Henrietta Knight (the owner of Best Mate) and her husband Terry Biddlecome (since passed away), Ted Walsh, John McCririck, Dermot Weld, Noel Meade and one of the greatest racing commentators of all time, and a hero of mine Peter O Sullivan. He was a thorough gentleman and he chatted away. What a broadcasting voice he had. I sat on a bench ouside the weigh room in the sunshine and spoke at length to John McCrirrick the controversial but colourful Channel 4 TV analyst and presenter. He gave me a hard time but that was his way and it was great fun.
It was one of the most exciting days of my broadcasting and sporting career. We brought the mini-discs back to our base which was located in the press room under one of the Cheltenham stands for broadcast on Shannonside. We even interviewed renowned Royal correspondent James Whittaker on the programme. It was only after I got back home that I learned that Whittaker was actually a native of the town of Cheltenham. I met my lifelong friend Donal Keenan (Brian’s brother) in the press area and we enjoyed a few pints together. Just to be there was a huge thrill.
When the meeting started with the Supreme Novices Hurdle at 1.30pm the atmosphere was astounding. You knew that you were attending something really special. Sir OJ (ridden by Mick Fitzgerald) ran in one of the big races of the day, The Arkle Chase well but finished 11th of 19 behind Contraband. Brian Keenan and his family were not too despondent as the horse came back safe and sound. It was such an honour to have a horse good enough to run at the festival. To say you were there was an achievement in itself. He would challenge ( and win) another day.
The big race of the day was The Champion Hurdle and there was mayhem in the stands among the huge Irish contingent when the first three places went to Irish trained horses with Hardy Eustace pipping Harchibald and Brave Inca in a thrilling contest.
We joined Brian with family and friends in the owners and trainers bar later that evening (we slipped in without a pass) and we had a few pints. That night I spent the night with Brian and his family at a hotel nearby and we had a good few nightcaps before retiring at about 12 midnight. It had been a very long, tiring, but exhilarating day. Sometimes a major sporting or other event is an anti-climax but this was certainly even better than I had hoped.
I was returning home on Wednesday night late from Birmingham airport which meant that I was able to go to the races in Cheltenham on the following day. It provided another sporting memory that is right up there with anything else I’ve seen in terms of excitement.
The big race on the second day is always The Queen Mother Champion Chase. One of the true superstars of the Irish racing scene, Moscow Flyer was trying to regain the crown he had won in such style in 2003. Trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by Barry Geraghty, the horse started the hot favourite at 6/4.
Geraghty gave the ‘Flyer’ a superb ride and as the final couple of furlongs came into view he made his move. The massive Irish crowd began to roar when he jumped up to challenge at the second last. It was a sound the like of which I have never heard at any sporting gathering and it got louder and louder as the horses got closer to the winning post. Geraghty brought Moscow Flyer home 2 lengths in front of the top English challenger Well Chief. Hats, scarves, newspapers and race cards were thrown into the air as this magnificent horse made history. The scenes as he was led in to the parade ring were some of the most emotional ever seen at the famous course. It was a truly magical sporting moment.
Sir Oj was not finished with Cheltenham 2005 either. The horse came out of the Tuesday race well and the trainer decided that he should take his chance again on the Thursday, two days later. “He ran in the Jewson Novice Chase on St Patrick’s Day and he ran really well and finished fourth ridden by Paul Carberry. We were really happy with that run.” Brian told me.
Later that year, and back at Cheltenham at the big December meeting Sir OJ had the biggest day of a super career when he beat a top class field to land the ‘Robin Cook’ Chase at a huge price. I backed the horse at 33/1 that morning in Roscommon Town although he was returned at 16/1. We had a big party the following night when Brian and his family came back from Cheltenham.
Brian recalls that huge win. “We were not sure that the horse would get into the race right up until the day before because he was bottom weight, and luckily another horse dropped out and we were able to run him. It was fantastic win and we beat a top class field to win it.”
In fact probably Sir Oj’s most notable win came in early 2006 at Naas. “I would say that one of his best performances came at Naas when he beat a tpo class field again and that field included a very good horse at the time called Nickname. “ Brian recalls.
In March Sir Oj took his chance once again at the Cheltenham Festival but he fell in the Ryanair Chase which was won by Fondmort . Brian and Noel Meade decided to let him take his chance in the Aintree Grand National. I decided that it was a great reason to go to the greatest steeplechase in the world. This time around it was a social visit and myself and my wife Teresa went on the ferry and got a bus to Liverpool on the Friday.
There were two sporting events that I will always remember on BBC TV growing up, the FA Cup and the Grand National. The coverage for both started shortly after 9am and continued all day long. Presenters like David Coleman and Des Lynam brought all the excitement of the big day into millions of homes in the UK and Ireland and now I had a chance to go to see what it was at the race they call’ The greatest steeple chase in the world.
The atmosphere in the city of Liverpool on that Friday night was something I shall never forget. Friday was Ladies Day at Aintree and tens of thousands of people packed the streets in their finery after a day at the course. There was music and dancing in every pub. We went into a place where there was a karaoke session. It was some fun. Everyone was in such good form. It was a magical start to the weekend.
That Grand National Day was another major sporting highlight that I shall remember to my dying day. Brian knew I was going to the races but only as a punter, but at about half past nine on the morning of the race he rang me to say he had extra passes for the owners and trainers bar. We hurried to the course and even at that early hour there were tens of thousands of people there. It was a fine dry and warm day. We met Brian at the gate and gained entry. Even the owners and trainers bar was packed and the sense of excitement was incredible.
Not alone were we rubbing shoulders with the legends of horse racing, the business and sporting world, but we were with a friend from Roscommon who actually had a runner in the National. From the time I was a boy I watched in awe on the BBC on Grand National Day as this great race unfolded. The horses, the jockeys, the massive fences, the fallers, the glory, and the heart break . It was the greatest race in the world and I was there. I had to pinch myself a couple f times that day
When it came to an hour before the race we accompanied Brian, his wife Ethel and other members of the family which included my great buddy Donal into the parade ring. It was surreal as Clare Balding did live TV interviews on the BBC with owners, trainers and jockeys just feet away from where we were standing. Sir Oj was ridden that day by Paul Carbery and was priced at 33/1.
When it came to race time we watched from an area reserved for owners and trainers although at Aintree it is hard to see the field all the way around as the track is very flat. However to be with the 120,000 people there live and the hundreds of millions of people around the world watching the race was some thrill. Sir OJ fell at Beechers’ second time around and I remember Brian Keenan’s son Brian junior racing away down the course to see that the horse was ok, and thankfully he was.
We stood in the parade ring as the winner (an Irish horse) Numbersixvalverde, ridden by ‘Slippers’ Madden came back to an unbelievable reception. It was an Irish winner and the cheers rang out around the course. Sir OJ returned bruised but unhurt and he would live to fight another day. We adjourned to the bar and later we got a train back into the centre of the city. Another unbelievable sporting memory tucked away into the memory banks.
In fact on the way home on the ferry I met hurling superstar Brian Whelehan and a few of his friends who were in Liverpool at the races for the weekend. I had known Brian from my GAA commentating days and he came down to see us in Roscommon when we were renting a pub in Church Street one night. A lovely guy and what a hurler he was. But all in all it was a great end to a fantastic weekend.
Brian Keenan recalls the excitement of the day. “It was fantastic to have had a runner in the Grand National at Aintree. It was a great day and something I will never forget.”
Sir OJ was not finished yet. The horse ran again at Gowran Park in October and he won a big chase there in great style. Then in November ’06 myself and a good friend of mine, Mick Brehony went to Clonmel one Thursday morning to see him run in the Grade One Clonmel Oil Chase and even though he just about got up on the line to win by a short head, it was another major win.
But that was the last time that Sir OJ was to run. Brian takes up the story. “He was getting ready to run in the Hilly Way Chase in Cork on the 8th of December and he got injured and he never ran after that. Noel Meade said to me after we won in Clonmel that I might never have a good a horse again so enjoy it. He was right, and we tried several times over the years but we never got one as good as him. But he gave us some great days “he concluded
Sir OJ ran 24 times between June 2002 and November 2006. He won 10 times and many of those wins were in very high class company and for me personally it was a chance to have been able to go to Cheltenham and to Aintree and they proved two incredible sporting events.
It is amazing that although the sport of Horse Racing would be down the list in terms of my favourite sports, those two Roscommon Town owned horses provided me with some of the most outstanding sporting memories over the past thirty years.