Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Photo Essay: My Wee Trip to Norn Iron

It's been more than two weeks since my last post and while I enjoyed the freedom and fun of my vacation to England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, I can honestly say I missed the local horse racing and online camaraderie that has become part and parcel of my daily routine.

The loneliest horse in all of Northern Ireland

So, while the remainder of this post will serve as a "What I Did on my Summer Vacation" type photo essay, please do note that as of this moment I am once again live with daily entries/results from Woodbine, up-to-the minute Woodbine News updates and active on the Twitter.

With the Pattison Canadian International to be raced this coming weekend, I am looking forward to visiting the backstretch and reporting on the contenders. As well, I'll have coverage direct from the post-position draw this week which will be overseen by NHL great Jeremy Roenick. Can't wait!

The International field is shaping up nicely with Redwood, Chinchon, Mores Wells, Joshua Tree, Cloudy’s Knight, Marsh Side, Al Khali, Memorial Maniac, Spice Route, Fifty Proof and Simmard rumoured to be in the mix. Stay tuned for more updates!

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Sometimes it comes as a surprise to people that my family lives in Northern Ireland. It shouldn't really - I'm a massive horse racing fan, watch and play soccer, drink bucketfuls of tea daily and have never had a suntan in my life. I'm also incredibly stubborn and short on patience when encountering stupidity. All intrinsically Irish traits.

My wee sister Erin chauffered us through Bushmills (the town and distillery) and along the coast.

Friends will ask me why I don't have an accent and the simple answer is that I've just lived here in Canada for too long. I was born in East York to two Irish parents some *cough cough arghhghg* years ago and was raised in Canada until we moved to Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. While I enjoyed a brief, and somewhat dangerous, spell overseas (this was N. Ireland in the '80s after all) we quickly moved home to Canada where I was chased around the schoolyard by kids asking me to say "trousers" and "lorry" which was quite the embarrassing situation when you're ten years old.

Rolling hills...

Now my accent comes and goes on phone calls home to my family. The lilt especially comes through when speaking with my brother David who converses in a series of grunts and half-completed sentences delivered at warp speed. For David, getting the idea of the communication across is far more important than tying up loose grammatical ends of the finished product. I know it's time to hang up the phone with David when I find myself winking and nodding into the receiver.

At any rate, this long and unnecessary introduction is my way of bringing up the topic of Irish speak and how local lingo affected my trip abroad both in daily conversation and at the racetrack. My parents live in Lisburn which is a suburb of Belfast. In this part of the world, everything is "wee".

The lovely wee Amy at the Giant's Causeway

For example. Several times each day I would be asked, "Would you like a wee cup of tea." This polite offer had nothing to do with the size of the drink and everything to do with the way of the language. The wee word was wedged into everyday conversation in much the way people think Canadian's end all their sentences with"eh". Oh.

He's off for a wee nap.

Did you see that wee man at the shop?

I'm quite certain that if a herd of gargantuan elephants stampeded through the streets of Belfast, there would be some auld auntie at the side of the road saying, "Bless, did you see the wee herd of elephants."

For a more fulsome guide to Belfast speak, I encourage you to click into this helpful guide of Belfast phrases to discover that guddies go on your feet, a busted phone is banjaxed and it's time for me to shut my bake.

Lovely wee boats in Bangor

On the night of Friday October 1st, I walked through the gates at Dundalk Stadium to encounter a track designed specifically for left-handed racing on polytrack. It wasn't the first time I'd be confused and bewildered on this evening. This was not the traditional Irish racetrack of luscious landscapes, right-handed racecourses and softest of turf.

The train ride to Dundalk cut through some magnificent scenery

This track was remarkably similar to Woodbine and despite being thousands of miles from my Toronto home there were a few familiar faces willing to assist in my quest to find a winner at Dundalk. Jockey Pat Smullen, brother of Woodbine trainer Sean Smullen, explained the finer points of Irish race riding compared to the tactics of the Woodbine jockey colony.

“The pace of the races are quicker over there,” advised Smullen. “We’re a bit more tactical here and the races don’t seem to go as fast. It’s all about conditioning horses here.”

And as for the polytrack itself?

“Ours is a bit slower,” admitted Smullen.

Rightly so, as it seems the horses in Ireland are pulling considerably more weight than their Canadian counterparts. In fact, Smullen’s mount in the featured Diamond Stakes, Dansant, would have to carry a whopping 9 stone 2lb. That’s 128lbs for those not familiar with the unit of measurement where a stone is equal to 14lbs.

I could easily have added several stone in the lovely Dundalk dining room

Smullen, a strapping jock, who recently guided Famous Name to a seventh-place finish in the Woodbine Mile is not likely to become a Woodbine regular, despite his success at Dundalk where he is currently second in the jockey standings.

“I’d be too big for the weights over there,” smiled Smullen. “The weights are very light and I’d be struggling through the weights but if I was a bit lighter, maybe yes."

A quick flip through the program shows that horses are regularly carrying upwards of 130lbs and Smullen’s mount in the card-closing Irish Times Handicap, A Hit Is A Hit, would be dragging 10 stone over 2,400 metres. Err, 140lbs over a mile and a half.

To familiarize myself with the surroundings, I watched the first couple races without wagering. True to Smullen’s advice, the early pace of the races went slowly with the real race-riding commencing in the stretch run as horses tipped from the rail and fanned across the track. The riding was rough and jockeys jumped positions like New York City taxi drivers assuming a lane that didn’t really exist.

A scenic stretch battle at Dundalk Stadium

Jockey Davy Moran, who won the 2010 Woodbine Oaks with Carolyn Costigan’s Roan Inish, concurs that the Irish style of racing is a bit more physical.

“A lot of our tracks are very tight and sharp and up and down hills and we’ve just a different way of riding,” offered Moran. “We ride a bit tighter and together and it’s probably a little bit rougher.”

Davy Moran heads to the poly

Purses at Dundalk on this night averaged €13,500, or roughly $19,000 Canadian dollars.

“I think in Ireland you don’t have as much racing as you could have compared to Britain and it’s very, very competitive and everybody is fighting for the same few bob,” began Moran. “The prize money isn’t as good as it is at Woodbine and I think people are very hungry here and you have to hold your own and ride kind of fearless, really.”

Moran was able to use his third place finish aboard Roan Inish in the Queen’s Plate to illustrate a difference in riding strategies.

“I remember the boys after the Queen’s Plate said to me ‘boy, you got some run’ as I started over the inside and just weaved my way through,” grinned Moran. “They said I went through them like a knife but I thought I had loads of room. Over here, when you see the gap you have about two seconds to get through it or your blocked so it’s a little different. The rules are very strong over there. The rules are strong here too, it’s not that they let you do anything you want, but I think you get away with a little bit more bumping that over there.”

With the big race drawing near, the helpful Moran offered up a starter course in overseas handicapping but despite his upbeat and helpful explanation of weight allowances and timeform ratings, my head was spinning.

We parted ways and I decided to try my first wager of the night. With the utmost of confidence, I selected three horses and walked up to the totes and blurted, “ Two dollar exactor box on the two, three and seven, please.”

The man at the wicket laughed. Realizing my error, I revised the transaction to Euros instead of dollars but was once again greeted with confusion.

“So, you want to reverse the forecast wager?” asked the man helpfully.

I nodded my head in agreement, not realizing that local lingo meant that our Canadian “exactor” is more commonly known as a “forecast” and was handed a voucher that appeared to be the equivalent of a €1 exactor box. I handed over the money and walked away before the growing lineup behind me created an international incident.

Wagering at Dundalk is far easier than I make it out to be

The horses stormed out of the gate and the track announcer mumbled out a series of names in an accent that excited the local punters but confused me to no end. With no helpful Trackus chicklits on the big screen and each horse wearing the same red saddle cloth, I stood stupidly by the rail trying to identify silks as jockeys and their charges bumped blissfully to the finishing post. Needless to say, I did not collect.

Defeated, I walked immediately to the bar and ordered a pint of mood facilitator intent on changing my luck. As I tipped the bartender, one of the locals advised that it’s not the custom to tip in Ireland to which I advised, “I’m not from around here.” He quickly retorted, “It shows!”

Down, but far from out, I headed to the walking ring to watch seven contenders strut their stuff before the Group 3 Diamond Stakes. Gitano Hernando was the favourite off a long layoff from his excellent sixth-place finish in the Dubai World Cup but would have to see off Aiden O’Brien’s Beethoven and the improving Ger Lyons trainee Wade Giles to take the spoils, which included an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon.

Program for the Diamond Stakes

There was little doubt in the walking ring that Gitano Hernando looked sharp. However, I was taken by the bay gelding Wade Giles and felt confident of an exactor wager.

As I headed towards the tote, I walked through an area crowded with punters and loud, angry men on short ladders shouting odds. As it turns out, if you don’t like the odds on the tote board in Ireland, you can quickly find an alternative bookmaker to take your money – and often at much better odds than available at the house ticket window. A horse listed at 8-1 on the track tote board could easily be backed for 12-1 through a bookie. However, the bookies offer only straight win, place or each-way (win and place combined) wagering and I was after an exactor.

Bookies shout the odds at interested punters

While queuing to make my wager, my friend from the bar stopped to say hello again and find out where I was from. Seemingly amused at my assignment, the sprightly native of Portadown offered some salty words of advice.

“Gitano is going to piss it!” chortled the lad. “When you get back to Canada, tell them you met an eedjit from Porty-Up that knows nothing about riding horses but plenty about riding…”

Well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Needless to say, by the time I got to the wicket I was ready to wager. “Race 5, five Euro exactor key the 2 (Gitano Hernando) over 1 (Dansant) and 7 (Wade Giles).”

The lady behind the counter about fell over.

“Do you want to reverse 2, 1 and 7,” she asked hopefully.

It took forever to stammer a response but we soon got it sorted. Meanwhile the man at the window next to me wagered eight Euros each way on Wade Giles. Inspired, I repeated the man’s wager on my personal paddock pick and rushed to the rail to watch the race.

Gitano Hernando, under jockey Kieran Fallon, left the gate as the 9-10 favourite for the extended 10-furlong event but watched from well back as Pat Smullen and Dansant led the field through their paces. As the horses raced along the backstretch, it was apparent that the riders had effectively boxed Gitano Hernando.

Gitano Hernando blurs out of the gate

With the pace backed up in his face, Fallon patiently waited for an opening. As Davy Moran advised earlier in the evening, space in these races come at a premium and when Fallon thought he found a hole turning into the stretch, Wade Giles and jockey Keegan Latham quickly closed it. Undaunted, Fallon steered his horse to the far rail of the narrow Dundalk course and revved his engine to blow past Wade Giles and win by a neck.

Best song on the Belfast radio - Mumford and Sons

It was a thrill to walk back to the window and collect on a pair of wagers. And I was only slightly bothered to discover while reading the fine print later that evening that place wagering in Ireland pays out to first, second and third place finishers in races with more than eight runners. It's guaranteed I left cashable tickets in the bin that night and no doubt the stoopers made good money off my ignorance.

While Dundalk Stadium did not offer me the expected Irish racing experience, I can happily report that the facility was top notch, the food above average and the drinks flowed for a willing clientele of well-dressed young adults. It was brilliant to see so many young folks at the track and I left Dundalk with a smile on my face and some money in my pocket.

Novelty song of the trip - We Don't Speak Americano - was constantly on the radio

My trip to Dundalk was the only true racing experience of the trip, though I can advise that outfits like Ladbrokes and William Hill have shops all over Belfast offering odds on everything from how much Liverpool will lose by this week (grrr...) to how many winners Lanfranco Dettori might notch on the weekend.

Line em up!

After spending many days in the company of family getting caught up, I was delighted near the end of my vacation to encounter a field of horses enjoying life by the sea near the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim.

Pintos win the coin toss and start first

As I walked the jagged cliff looking out over the water, two distinct sets of four horses each faced off. A group of shaggy Pintos appeared to be negotiating with a bevy of dark bays over the terms of their non-wagering point-to-point event. In an instant, the Pintos took off and after a measured number of strides the bay horses gave chase. With breathtaking speed, the group raced the perimeter of the fence amidst a furious anthem of pounding hooves and waves crashing into the cliffs. It was just horses being horses, but in a distinctly Irish way, and that memory is by far my biggest racing win of the trip.

And away they go...

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Thanks for indulging my wee trip report. It's good to be back and I look forward to getting back on track.


Andrew said...

Hello Keith, welcome back. Definitely missed reading your updates, looks like the trip was amazing.

Rich said...

Welcome back. Glad you made the races over there. I love the Pintos picture.
Are you going to the Breeders Cup? We'll be there.

Smitten Kitten said...

Hahahahaha! I love that wee Americano song!