The thrill of Fairyhouse

The thrill of waking up on an Easter Monday morning as a child and realising you were being brought to Fairyhouse for the Irish Grand National is something many adults of today will recall with fond memories.

The excitement and anticipation of the build-up to the big day, the journey to the course by many different modes of transport, including by foot for some, and all the colour and atmosphere that were, and still are, part of one of the most popular sporting and cultural occasions we can boast of in this country.

Fairyhouse, of course, is synonymous with the staging of Ireland’s most prestigious National Hunt race, run over three miles and five furlongs on a right-handed circuit, but there’s much more to the famous racing venue near Ratoath than the Irish Grand National.

The racecourse is steeped in history, dating way back to its inaugural meeting over a century and a half ago in 1848 when the famed Ward Union Hunt transferred its point-to-point fixture from nearby Ashbourne to Fairyhouse.

Since that historic day Fairyhouse has been the scene of great racing and even greater horses, none greater than the legendary Tom Dreaper-trained Arkle which thrilled the crowds in 1964 by winning the National under the expert steering of another legend of the racing game, that outstanding jockey Pat Taaffe.

Arkle was part of an amazing winning sequence for Dreaper, who trained at Kilsallaghan near Ashbourne, as he sent out seven different horses to win the famous jumping race between 1960 and ’66 - Olympia (1960), Fortria (1961), Keforo (1962), Last Link (1963), Arkle (1964), Splash (1965) and the mighty Flyingbolt (1966).

The Irish Grand National is to Fairyhouse what the All-Ireland football and hurling finals are to Croke Park - not merely another major event on the sporting calendar, but part of our heritage and something that has evolved over the years into a truly extra special and uniquely Irish occasion.

Down the years people have travelled from all over the country, and some from further afield, for the big race, while people living within reasonable distance of the course recall walking to the meeting through fields without ever coming into contact with a road.

A visit to the course today and a look at its superb facilities gives an indication of just how much Fairyhouse has been transformed through careful planning, plenty of hard work and lots of money and it is a credit to all those who had the vision and the appetite for the huge amount of effort it took to turn it into what it now is.

But it must be such a far cry from that day near the middle of the 19th century when a point-to-point meeting got the ball rolling.

From humble beginnings the venue established itself as one of the country’s top tracks and a major feather was added to its cap 22 years after that initial fixture when the track became home to the Irish National in 1870.

A grey gelding by the name of Sir Robert Peel, owned by L. Dunne and ridden by John Boylan, was the inaugural winner on Easter Monday that year, earning its connections a prize of 167 sovereigns, and the National quickly established itself as Ireland’s most valuable and prestigious steeplechase, an event anybody with a decent jumper wanted to win.

Since that historic first running 133 years ago some real stars of the National Hunt game have added their names to the roll of honour down the years.

There have been famous horses, jockeys, trainers and owners over the long and distinguished history of the race, but there was surely no more amazing success than in 1929 when a horse called Alike, a six-year-old mare which was owned and ridden by Frank Wise, triumphed in the Fairyhouse feature.
It wasn’t so much that Alike was anything particularly amazing, other than a very good racehorse with the jumping ability and stamina to win the National, but Wise was clearly extraordinary by any standards. He wasn’t exactly a giant of a man, standing at just 5’4", but he was missing three fingers and, to add to an astonishing success story, he rode with a wooden leg!

Many jockeys have achieved major successes despite great adversity, but it’s doubtful if any can better that one.

Of course, Alike doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Arkle, undoubtedly the greatest National Hunt horse of all time, which included three successive Cheltenham Gold Cup wins between 1964 and ’66 among his numerous list of big race successes, or any of the other outstanding horses which thrilled their connections by winning the Irish National.

Many truly great horses stamped their class on the National at Fairyhouse, including the Dreaper-trained Prince Regent which triumphed in 1942, despite being burdened with a huge weight of 12-7.
Prince Regent was by that great Irish jumping sire My Prince and his success netted 745 pounds for owner J.V. Rank, the flour millionaire.

The mighty Prince Regent went on to finish second in the race for the following two years under huge burdens and, such is the way this horse has been spoken about by those who had the privilege to witness him in action, that he must have been a huge attraction at Fairyhouse during those war years.
His biggest success came in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1946 as an 11-year-old and he finished third in the Aintree Grand National the same year.

The Dreaper-trained Flyingbolt, under 12-7 in 1966, Brown Lad, which triumphed on three occasions in 1975, ’76 and ‘78, Tied Cottage, which scored a memorable win under owner/jockey Tony Robinson in ’79, and that highly popular grey Desert Orchid, which triumphed for Richard Dunwoody in ‘90, are just a few others which provided moments of equine magic in the Irish National.

There have always been strong links between the GAA and racing and the success of the Jim Dreaper-trained 12-year-old Brown Lad as he clinched his third Irish National on a very wet day in 1978 is one of them.

Ratoath’s Tommy Carberry, father of one of the top jockeys of today Paul, steered Brown Lad to his triumphs in ’75 and ‘76, but his jockey in ’78 was none other than talented Dunshaughlin footballer Ger Dowd who guided the teak tough battler home to win the race under a big burden of 12-2, the same weight he had carried to glory two years earlier.

Other great equine names to grace the Fairyhouse track with their talents included the brilliant three times Champion Hurdle victor Persian War, twice Cheltenham Gold Cup and once Aintree Grand National winner L’Escargot, the very exciting Captain Christy and the Aidan O’Brien-trained Istabraq, unquestionably one of the best hurdlers of the modern era.

And, of course, there was Monksfield, trained at Billywood, Moynalty, by Des McDonogh which included back-to-back Champion Hurdle triumphs at Cheltenham in 1978 and ’79 among his many successes.

Great memories of just a few of the great horses which brought their outstanding talents to Fairyhouse down through the years and added extra excitement and sparkle to meetings there.

The Fairyhouse that racegoers enjoy today, with all its plush facilities and great comforts, is a vastly different place from those far off days when the Sport of Kings first enthralled the public in the green fields near Ratoath and when the pace of life was so much slower.

But it clearly had a unique appeal from a very early stage in its existence, particularly on Grand National Day, and that is something which, thankfully, hasn’t changed.
Long may it continue.

Taken from Royal County
December 2003