Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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NOTABLE WINS

English Derby (2)

1981 - Parkdown Jet
1989 - Lartigue Note

Waterloo Cup (1)

1984 - Tubbertelly Queen

English Laurels (1)

`1990 - Concentration

Irish Derby (3)

1969 - Own Pride.
1973 - Bashful Man.
1987 - Rathgallen Tady.

Irish Oaks (1)

1979 - Nameless Pixie

Irish St Leger (12)

1956 - Prince of Bermuda.
1960 - Swanlands Best.
1962 - Apollo Again.
1965 - Lovely Chieftain.
1967 - Yanka Boy.
1969 - Own Pride.
1971 - Time Up Please.
1972 - Time Up Please.
1975 - Ballybeg Prim.
1976 - Nameless Star.
1977 - Red Rasper.
1984 - Morans Beef

Irish Laurels (7)

1970 - Gabriel Boy
1976 - Nameless Star
1980 - Knockrour Slave
1983 - Back Garden `
1984 - Rugged Mick
1985 - Follow A Star
1996 - Deerfield Bypass

AWARDS

Greyhound Racing Hall of Fame: 1998.

Texaco Award:
1965, 1966, 1967, 1973 and 1981.

Greyhound Racing Sportsman of the Year:
1981, 1984, 1987..

GER MCKENNA (1930–204)
THE GREYHOUND MAESTRO

‘There’s a lot of luck in it to be straight with you’, concedes Ger McKenna. ‘You could take a bitch to a dog and you might think it would breed the bees knees. But the pups mightn’t win a race between them. And then you might go to some ordinary auld dog and get a great litter out of it. Don’t listen to the fellow who says this is the dog for him or this is the bitch for her. Its solid luck.’

Ger McKenna should know. The 80-year-old from Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary, has built up one of the most remarkable trophy collections in the greyhound game, racking up 44 classic wins, including two English Derbys and the coveted Waterloo Cup. ‘Himself and Lester Piggott used to be neck and neck’, says his wife Josie proudly.

The McKenna’s have been breeding and training greyhounds since the 19th century. Ger’s grandfather Michael McKenna was a toddler when the legendary Master McGrath scored his Waterloo Cup treble between 1868 and 1871. Michael later became a prosperous merchant-farmer and Ger remembers him walking greyhounds up the roads around their farm.

Michael and his wife had thirteen children and, says Ger, ‘every one of them had an interest in dogs’. Ger’s father Malachy was the third child, born in 1889, who often talked about the ‘tough times before the first war’. Malachy farmed outside Borrisokane, secured his trainers licences and kept about thirty dogs. He also had thirteen children. ‘They weren’t sleeping all the time’, laughs Ger. ‘As the fellow says, they could have done with some precaution’.

In 1930, two major events happened in the world of greyhound racing. Firstly, the Offaly bred Mick the Miller won his second consecutive English Derby.[vi] And secondly Malachy McKenna’s wife Agnes [nee Gavin] bore a son called Gerard.[vii]

Ger’s childhood was all about the dogs. ‘I knew nothing else only greyhounds’, he says. ‘I done nothing else.’ He was eight-years-old when he attended his first race meeting in Limerick. It was St Patrick’s Day 1938 and the track has just reopened after the long winter.[viii] ‘It was packed to suffocation’, he recalls. ‘The crowd that night was the same as if it was the final of the Ledgers. There might have been three hundred dogs come for the trials on the Monday, all walking up from the train station in the days before. I remember it so well because we had a bitch running and she won and I finished up with 26 shillings. I thought I was a millionaire.’

Ger went to school in Borrisokane, and later Ballyhaden, but left at the age of fourteen to help his father.[ix] ‘He was the boss until the day he died’, says Ger. ‘He had a farm out the road and he used to buy cows and sell them at the fair in Nenagh or take them to the market in Limerick.[x] I’d walk the cows for him. It was either that or go to school and I’d much rather be on the road’. However, an injury at school ‘bucked my knee’ and he was laid up in Dublin’s Richmond Hospital for 19 weeks.

Ger continued to apprentice to his father until his mid 20’s when he obtained his trainers licence. ‘The shillings were scarce’, he says, ‘but there was money in greyhounds’.[xi]

In 1960, Miss Josie Loughnane from Offaly arrived in Borrisokane and set up a hairdressing salon. She and Ger caught one another’s eye, and married on 4th July 1962, ‘the day I lost my independence’, as she puts it. ‘She thought I had money, d’you see?’, expl
ains Ger. ‘She got an awful shock though’.

Josie knew nothing about greyhounds when she married. She quickly became central to the business, orchestrating the travel of dogs before all the trials and races while Ger focused on the training and kennelling.[xii]

Ger dominated the 1960s and 1970s, winning the St. Ledger on eleven occasions, including three-in-a-row from 1975-1977. ‘I was lucky enough’, he says. ‘I’m not bragging or boasting or anything but I won everything. Forty-four Classics, with English and Irish Derbys and everything.’

One of his first and fastest dogs was Prince of Bermuda. ‘He was the Master McGrath of that era’, says Ger, regarding the dogs’ portrait on the sitting room wall. ‘He won everything but the Derby and broke records on every track he went on. He was the first dog to break 29 seconds at Shelbourne. That was the greatest moment in greyhound racing. The whole place was on fire’.[xiii] Prince of Bermuda was a supremely intelligent dog, says Ger, and the only one he has had who genuinely seemed to understand what he was saying. However, he was also typical of a brilliant dog that ‘never bred nothing’ even though he ‘got a bitch every day of the week’.[xiv]

He laments the twilight of the coursing age, but understands that young lads might prefer computers to watching a hare throw a few turns in a wet field. [xv] He growls at the notion that dog fighting might still exist.[xvi]

1967 was a golden year with Yanka Boy winning the St Ledger at Limerick, the Cesarwicth at Navan and the Midlands Puppy Stakes at Mullingar, as well as Irish Greyhound of the Year. When Bashful Man, the second of his three Irish Derby winners, sprinted home in 1973 in a time of 28.82, that was the fastest time ever recorded for a Derby final.

The English Derby had always been his goal and in 1981 the most feared name in Irish racing launched his assault with Parkdown Jet. The scenes which followed his triumph were comparable to those of an FA Cup Final. He secured another English Derby in 1989 with Lartigue Note, as well as the Oaks and the Waterloo Cup.[xvii] ‘But I got bayt in them all a few times too’, he points out. ‘You never hear about the losers!’

Ger maintains that the two greatest nights of his life were winning the three Texaco Awards and winning the Irish Laurels at Curraheen Park in Cork City with his three sons by his side (He won all four of the big races in Cork that night).

Ger retired from training in 2003. Today, he and Josie live in a bungalow just outside the village of Borrisokane. They have three sons, one of whom trains greyhounds near the Rock of Cashel. The McKennas do not have a pet dog.

‘The whole thing with dogs is trying to keep them fresh so that they will come out of that box as quick as they can’, says Ger. ‘They were bred to hunt. That’s the way they started and that’s why they chase’.[xviii]

‘Nothing is certain’, he observes. ‘They say square headed dogs are wrong, but I saw more square headed dogs win than anything. You might be looking for a dog with straight hind-legs, but I saw them cow-hocked with legs out this way and that, and still they could win.’[xix]

Ger McKenna passed away in May 2014.

FOOTNOTES

[i] English Derby: 1979 (with White City) and 1989.

[ii] Irish Derby: 1969, 1973 and 1987.

[iii] Irish Oaks: 1979

[iv] Irish St. Ledger: 1960, 1962, 1963, 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1972 (same dog, Time Up Please) 1975, 1976, 1977, 1984.

[v] Irish Laurels: 1970, 1973, 1980, 1983, 1984. He also has 3 Irish Cesaravitch (1963, 1967, 1975), 2 Irish National Sprint (1965, 1969), 1 Easter Cup and 1 Guinness Trophy

[vi] Master McGrath (1866-1871) was another freak and triple winner of Waterloo Cup. ‘They tried to drown Mick the Miller when he was a pup and look at him!’

[vii] One of his brothers is Tony McKenna, while another brother Paul McKenna passed away in 2009.

[viii] ‘That time the tracks would close for a couple of months for the winter, for the coursing. There was nothing only coursing.’

[ix] I suggest he must have been good at his maths when he left and he roars with laughter.

[x] ‘At that time there was a fair in every place all over the country. It was 10th March and the place would be packed. Nothing happens now, not even a market. Its all finished now.’

[xi] ‘There wouldn’t be the money that’s in it now. It’s a lot more expensive now. It used to be £2 a week to get a dog trained. Now they get €100 a week.’ So that means if you have 30 dogs, you’re bringing in €3,000 a week.

[xii] ‘Everyone helps out a bit because there is so much to be done, especially with travelling. If you have runners in a couple of different tracks, there can be a lot of organizing and travelling. You’re on the road nearly every day between trials and racing at night’. They used to fly the dogs over to the UK but it is generally easier, cheaper and very nearly quicker to get them across by boat. Ger would go over on a Monday with one of the lads to prepare the kennels and such like, while Josie and the others would fly the dogs over on the Wednesday. ‘I got the hard job’, she laughs. ‘There would be three or four hours at Heathrow Airport while the dogs went through Customs.’

‘I wouldn’t fly any further than England to be straight with you. If I was going to England tomorrow, I’d twice rather go on the boat. I don’t like the plane’.

[xiii] Prince of Bermuda was born in 1953 and won the St Ledger in Limerick in 1956. He covered the 525 yards in 28.98 in the heat of the 1956 Irish Derby, and so became the first greyhound to beat 29 seconds. He was also runner up in that Derby. Prince of Bermuda was Ger’s most intelligent dog. ‘You could do anything with him. You could leave him standing there with no collar or lead on him and leave him standing there for half an hour and come back and he’d still be there. I always remember that, same as it was yesterday. A normal dog would be running after you and over the wall.’

[xiv] ‘You got thirty pound a bitch which was a lot of money at that time’, says Ger. ‘But I’d say he didn’t get ten winners altogether. He was a sort of freak. He wasn’t worth tuppence and never bred nothing’.

[xv] During the winter, there was always coursing and every parish in the land had a coursing meeting. ‘They’re nearly all gone now, every one of them. There’s nobody to run them anymore. It was the older generation. The young lads have no interest. When you think of it, there’s nothing in coursing. You’re out there for 3 weeks or a month to get the field ready and catch the hares. You’re standing on a wire fence and the hare turns up, maybe three turns and in. The next one comes and maybe one turn and in. that’s nothing for a young fellow. They’d rather be on a computer. I went coursing at Clonmel this year but unless you have a dog in it yourself, there’s no interest in coursing. That’s my opinion’. Coursing in England was a different game. ‘Over there you could be coursing for over half an hour but here its three turns and in. That’s all stopped in England now and it’s hanging on by its legs in Ireland.’

[xvii] ‘Waterloo is an awful place out near Liverpool’, he shivers. ‘There’s no shelter and its very bleak, open fields, miles and miles of flat ground and its always either rain or snow there.’

[xviii] The trick is to ensure that a dog still has a wildness about him so that the moment he’s unleashed, he will chase without doubt. If a dog is too well trained, he will hesitate. ‘A contrary dog is nearly always contrary all the way to the track and might be turning in the box.’ ‘You want them to chase’. You can’t whistle them to a halt. ‘It is the same as what jockeys are trying to do’, ie: keeping their steeds on the cutting edge between wild and tame.

[xix] ‘Only a cod fellow will tell you ‘I knew he was good’. They will all say that after the race was over’. They run in all shapes and sizes. They say square headed dogs are wrong but I saw more square headed dogs win than anything. Thick heads. You’d be looking for a dog with straight hind-legs. Well, I saw them cow-hocked with legs out here and still they could in. Nothing is certain.’

While he has a big interest in horses, he rarely goes racing, maybe five meetings in his life.

Ger reckons there are more trainers than ever before, including his son who has 50 dogs in Newinn near the Rock of Cashel. ‘He might own only two of them. He’s had a good roll lately.’

Whelping is a greyhound’s date of birth.

One of their dogs was called Slipalong Slippy.

With thanks to Brendan Berry.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.