Here at the Quinella Castle, the traditional celebration of St. Patrick’s Day involves the King leaving in the morning to spend the day (and afternoon, and evening) at a local pub with other fellas of Irish descent drinking Irish whiskey whilst I entertain myself with such celebratory tasks as cleaning the bathroom, mopping the floor, balancing the checkbook, and making sure that the Castle is well-stocked with hangover remedies. This year, I forsook the usual festivities to spend the afternoon visiting the Irish racing scene, courtesy of Bill Barich and A Fine Place to Daydream: Racehorses, Romance and the Irish.
I much prefer this manner of marking the holiday. Barich is a fine racing companion whose writing simply flows, flows, flows like the River Shannon – sparkling with insight and good humor. I first encountered Barich following a fellow TBA member's recommendation; after a sample, I gave his 1980 work, Laughing in the Hills, a try and found I rather liked his introspective chronicle of a season at Golden Gate, filled with stories of trainers and grooms, jockeys and owners, all interspersed with a smattering of comparisons to Florence during the Renaissance. (Good news, readers! It looks like next month, DRF will be reprinting Laughing in the Hills)
In A Fine Place to Daydream, Barich recounts Irish racing legends (such as Black Jack Dennis, who purportedly rode the Rahasane course with its ten stone walls and twenty-five fences “without a saddle or bridle, with a cabbage stalk for a whip”), then seamlessly moves to stories of modern-day legends like John McManus, Michael Hourigan and Willie Mullins, all while following a number of hopefuls – most notably Moscow Flyer and Best Mate – through the 2003-2004 season to the glorious meet that is Cheltenham. Throughout the book, his observations of Irish culture are entwined with his own experiences as an American exile and horseplayer. It’s all rather intimate – and addictive – reading.
Of course, I should confess that I fell for Barich on page 13 which is devoted to description of the National Library of Dublin:
“Up the library’s central staircase I climbed, into the deep silence of the reading room with my reader’s ticket and its ghoulish passport photo (I’d closed my eyes by accident, so the picture resembled a post-mortem shot) on a chain around my neck. I blended comfortably into the mix of genealogy buffs digging up their ancestors, students doing research for term papers, budding writers courting inspiration, and the predictable quota of evanescent dreamers. Soft-spoken, well-mannered clerks disappeared into the tomblike stakes to unearth the books I requested, and I sat and studied and got the lay of the land.”Yes, he had me at “evanescent.” And, while I’m still wondering about those reader’s tickets (would such a thing help me find out who stole the Bible as well as all those wicca books at my library?), I was utterly enchanted with the view of the racing scene in Ireland.
Ireland apparently has more tracks per person than any other country in the world , and though A Fine Place covers all manner of things racing, there’s no talk about an urgent need to attract more racegoers or using slot machines to save the racecourse. In fact, track attendance was up 8% in 2004. Early on, Barich notes:
“While the English are fond of their racing, I discovered the Irish can’t live without it. Their embrace of the sport is passionate, a streak of lightning in the blood. Nothing grips them as powerfully as the sight of horses jumping over hurdles and steeplechase fences, maybe because it carries an echo of the country’s rural, agricultural heritage and has the power to touch people, and even move them.”Elsewhere, he quotes Ted Walsh, father of jockey Ruby Walsh, describing the Christmas meet at Leopardstown:
“You’ll have a grand time. They take a horse to heart there,” he said, clearly a high accolade. “They clap to the horse. The horse is the hero.”Perhaps that’s the secret American racing is missing: The horse is the hero.
“And the horse knows it?”
“And the horse knows it,” Walsh repeated.