A King of the Jungle foiled by the King of the Jungle!

The races or bust: Transport during the war years was restricted to the bicycle, ‘shanks’ mare’ or horse power. Here Lelia Brabazon gives friends and jockey Eddie Newman a lift to Ballybrit in 1942.

The races or bust: Transport during the war years was restricted to the bicycle, ‘shanks’ mare’ or horse power. Here Lelia Brabazon gives friends and jockey Eddie Newman a lift to Ballybrit in 1942.

IT’S A FACT, but a sad fact if you are a bookmaker, that no matter what a punter’s losses are, if he hears that it was a bad day for even one bookmaker, he smiles as he tells his wife the annual fib, that he lost only half what he really lost.

Despite many punters and race-goers losing their shirts on a horse called Desdichado on the Galway Hurdle, way back in 1945, there was more than a broad grin on the faces when they knew that they shared their losses with the biggest bookmaker of the day. The fact that it is so long ago, tells me that bookies don’t often lose their braces, but on this occasion people lost a small fortune, and everyone cheered!

Itsajungleoutthere was the name of a horse running in Ireland some years ago; but the real jungle of Irish racing is the betting ring. It’s the only market left in the world where ‘insider’ trading is not a criminal offence and ‘dog eats dog’ on a regular basis. One king of this particular jungle was bookmaker ‘Big John’ O’Keeffe, who it was rumoured made a fortune on his knowledge of the horse world, laying on bets of thousands at the last minute when he heard that a ‘sure thing’ was running. Originally from Kerry, ‘Big John’ was so successful at his trade that he had a fine house in fashionable Sandycove, between Dun Laoghaire and Dalkey, which later became the famous ‘Mirabeau’ restaurant.

‘Big John’ could be seen at the best pitches on the rails, and was often found chatting quietly with the late Tim O’Sullivan, a successful trainer and friend. Punters eagerly watched the low-voiced conversations between these two men, and desperately tried to hear what they had to say. People said that as sure as eggs is eggs, a winner was on their lips. It was said that O’Sullivan had a ‘magic bottle’ which added to the excitement of seeing these two men together.

A loud cheer

There was a touch of irony in the fact that the favourite for the Hurdle that year was King of the Jungle. Owned by Dick McIlhagga, trained by Barney Nugent, and ridden by Danny Morgan, it was a good horse, and had been laid out for the race. King of the Jungle was the favourite. Jumping suited him. He had nine wins under his girth, and had run second in three successive hurdle races. Furthermore, his rider, Danny Morgan, was going for a big race double, having won the Plate on Grecian Victory the day before.

But just when everything was going smoothly for King a wave of excitement hit the crowd. It was learned that another horse in the race, Desdichado, was owned by ‘Big John’ O’Keeffe’s wife, and ‘Big John’ was going for a ‘big touch’ on his wife’s horse.

Despite the fact that Desdichado was only a winner on the flat, and had never ridden a hurdle before, the betting market on the Hurdle set Galway alight. No one seemed to mind the fact that the race was very uneven. “Big John’s reputation was such that if he was prepared to put serious money on his wife’s horse everyone wanted a slice of the action. It was the the sight of bookmakers’ dusters rubbing furiously, sprinting runners knocking over punters, and tic-tacs gesticulating with all their might, backed up with loud whistles, shouts of ‘aye aye’ and curses from disrupted bystanders got everyone wild. A ‘springer’ was setting the market alight, inciting inquisitive punters to pop up, as from nowhere, throw caution and logic to the wind, to follow the money and Desdichado. With ordinary punters joining in, his price crashed to 4 to 1, while King of the Jungle, which had started the favourite, was 3 to 1.

Desdichado was to be ridden by the talented Aubrey Brabazon. He hadn’t a clue of the excitement his horse had generated, and was taken aback when he entered the parade ring, and ‘Big John’ leaned over to tell him that the stake of £444 was his if he won the race. Aubrey was amazed. He knew the background of his horse, and very much doubted he could do it. Still he did his best.

Despite the losses suffered by thousands of the punters that day, there was a loud cheer when King of the Jungle flashed past the winning post, beating Desdichado by a head!

A bit like Mass

The Galway races is a great place for stories. I have taken the above jewel and there are many others, from a new history of Ballybrit, a veritable feast of information, published last week.*

The author, Francis Hyland, surmises that there are two reasons behind the continuing success of the Galway Races. One is its democratic policy of not segregating race-goers into the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ manner all too often seen on racecourses; and the other is the Race Committee, which manage the race course. It ensures that all profits are reinvested in upgrading the facilities every year to cater for ever-increasing numbers, while endeavouring to keep the traditional intimacy of Ballybrit.

The first race there was as far back as 1869 and incredibly, it has grown to be the fourth largest race meeting in the world, according to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. The top 10 race meetings (with attendences ), are: 1 Melbourne Cup Carnival (404,500 ), 2 Royal Ascot (312,000 ). 3 Cheltenham Festival (312,000 ), 4 Galway 210,000, 5 Kentucky Derby (156,400 ), 6 Japan Cup (151,400 ), Aintree Grand National (145,0000, 8 Japanese Cup (140,100 ), 9 Epsom Derby (140,000 ), and 10 Japanese St Ledger (136,700 ).

Many Galway people like to go to Ballybrit on Sunday. The crowds are smaller, access is easier, and you always live in hope that the bookies will have a bad day. George Herterich always said: ‘The Galway Races are a bit like Mass: You feel you should go.”

* History of Galway Races, by Francis P M Hyland, published by Robert hale, London, now on sale at €47.25

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