Going to the dogs for generations

THE sports pages tell me greyhound racing will now start at 8.15am in Ireland to facilitate online gamblers in Britain. Surely to goodness only those who are hopelessly addicted to risk-taking want to place a bet on a dog before they’ve had a boiled egg and toasty soldiers in the morning. There are eight countries around the world where greyhound racing is organised and regulated but it is banned in Argentina and you face three years in the hoosegow if caught. This, on the other hand, seems a bit draconian.

Punters tell me there is no dog racing track left in Northern Ireland. Once there were four but the last one, at Drumbo, closed in January. These days you have to travel to Dundalk or Lifford to experience the joys of the track. This is a bit sad for Ireland has a long association with fleet-footed hounds and many of the successful racing dogs in Britain came from this island.

The most famous of them all was Master McGrath who was owned by the Liberal peer Lord Lurgan. The dog won England’s Waterloo Cup three times and was presented to Queen Victoria. So great was Master McGrath’s fame that after his death, in 1873, a monument was erected at his birthplace in Waterford but he was buried at his owner’s home in Armagh. He was recalled on the Irish sixpence in 1928 and has been the subject of paintings, poems and songs.

Mick the Miller, a direct descendant of Master McGrath, won 19 English races in a row in the 1920s earning a place in the sporting history books. He was owned by a Catholic priest, Martin Brophy, and earned a tidy sum at stud before the dog’s death in 1939 when he was stuffed and presented to the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. Royal Doulton produced a limited edition run of Mick the Miller figurines in the 1990s. Ulster-born sculptor Liz Kane designed a lifesize bronze which pays tribute to the dog at his birthplace in Offaly. It was unveiled by Taoiseach Brian Cowan in 2011.

Ballyregan Bob, who won 32 races back-to-back in the 1980s and broke track records everywhere he went, was owned, bred, trained and raced in England. His home track was Brighton but he came from Irish stock. He died in 1994 and can be found alongside Mick at Tring.

I know many people who enjoy a responsible flutter but I support the notion of a properly regulated betting industry. While the majority can afford a small wager there are far too many vulnerable or gullible people who will put their shirts on two flies crawling up a bookmaker’s wall. The betting game, like the owning business, is good to only a few.

I had a colleague who was a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin. When asked what he read at university he would respond with ‘The Sporting Life and the gas meter.’ He became a horse racing correspondent for a newspaper in South Africa which he said was the best job he ever had. He spent all day hobnobbing with the rich and famous at Durban racetrack and drinking good wine. Clearly he learned more from the punter’s bible than his books on modern history. At his funeral we put a few bob on an outsider at Leopardstown because its name reminded us of our absent friend. It won us the price of a round of good wine.

I have a neighbour who is part of a horse-owning syndicate and follows the sport of kings on a daily basis. He gets great pleasure from a modest gamble but admits that over the years he has hardly won the price of a good bottle of wine in either prize money or at the bookmaker’s. Perhaps it is because he tends to back the jockeys and not the nags.

A school friend of mine took a job at the Government Communications Headquarters and went to live in Cheltenham. He loved race week because all the punters who heard his accent thought that because he was Irish he had some insight into the likely winners. His random advice however earned him a few glasses of good wine.
Our family members place a small wager on the Grand National every spring. My canniest daughter in London refuses to reveal her secrets. Every time, without fail, she backs a winner while the rest of us are left bemoaning beaten dockets over glasses of good wine.

I encouraged all my children to play cards, for casino chips, in the belief it teaches them to assess risk and is good for their maths. On one occasion I was left potless by a neighbour’s teenage daughter during a game of stud poker. At Easter I taught my grandchildren to play the classic board game Monopoly. They loved it and grasped the fundamentals of capitalism in a matter of minutes. By bedtime I found myself required to mortgage most of a substantial portfolio to pay the fine for straying into a hotel on Park Lane. The winner had just celebrated her eleventh birthday and has the makings of a new Donald Trump.

I’ve known a few professional gamblers in my time and most will admit they have probably lost more than they have won. Though some had flash cars, the old maxim is undoubtedly true. You never see a bookmaker on a bicycle.

© Maurice Neill 2019

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