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
Irelands most prestigious National Hunt race, run
over three miles and five furlongs on a right-handed circuit,
but theres 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
From humble beginnings the venue established itself as one
of the countrys 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 Irelands 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 wasnt 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 wasnt exactly a
giant of a man, standing at just 54", 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 its doubtful if any can better that
Of course, Alike doesnt 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
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
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
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.
Ratoaths 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 LEscargot, the
very exciting Captain Christy and the Aidan OBrien-trained
Istabraq, unquestionably one of the best hurdlers of the
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
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, hasnt changed.
Long may it continue.
Taken from Royal County