Stephen Smith

The man from Cork thumbed through my race-card. Borrowing my ballpoint, he put a cross beside Kinard Diamond in the 4.30 and gave me a meaning look. We were standing at a lonely stretch of railing: myself, a girlfriend, the man from Cork and an old boy who said he used to be a priest. ‘I was in fifteen years,’ said the priest. ‘It was the women, I missed the women.’

‘He fell from the colours,’ said the man from Cork. Neither of them sounded the least bit sad about it. I supposed that they had come to watch the races but the priest was more interested in talking. ‘A good Englishman is a good Englishman and a good Irishman is a good Irishman.’ He raised a finger like an old piano key. ‘But a bad Englishman and a bad Irishman are tramps,’ he said happily. He was able to marry my companion and me if we so wished – there was a vestigial power which would never leave him, he said.

It was the day of the Dingle Derby. You could read about other events in the sports pages but there wasn’t so much as a tip for this one. Yet you couldn’t find a room in Dingle on Saturday night, and pots of horsey money were going through the discreet till of the Beginish restaurant in Green Street. Reproduced on the cover of the race-card was an anonymous quotation which I was unable to source: ‘The great man was alarmingly humble – and knew that Ascot and Dingle races were akin.’ The great man wasn’t an official of the Irish racing establishment, I suspect, because it doesn’t recognise the Dingle meeting. On paper, this traditional high summer event is open to ‘ponies’ but in practice it’s contested by ‘flappers’, a word for which there is no satisfactory synonym, although ‘ringers’ comes within a country mile. A waiter told me that the gold riband event had been won in the very recent past by a ranking thoroughbred, a horse so successful that even I recognised his name – though his name had been kept well out of it. ‘They put a coat of polish on him,’ said the waiter, who looked as though he wanted the story to be true as much as I did. Supposing that it was, the horse must have been entered either by his owners, taking a chance over his future participation in approved meetings, or by someone else, without their knowledge. The first prize was a modest £1300. A portfolio of bets, or betting through third parties, presumably made it worthwhile to risk an outing for premium bloodstock trading under a nom de turf.

The course itself was incredible, the most picturesque in all of racing: a crooked oval laid out between hedgerows blooming with fuscia, overlooking Dingle and the rasped metal of a bay. There was something unbelievable about the jockeys too, tiny even by the standards of the weigh-in room. ‘What are they? Sixteen, 17?’ I asked the man from Cork. ‘Younger,’ he said. Flapper races gave aspiring jockeys their first break, he said, proceeding to name a number who have gone on to become ornaments of prestigious winning enclosures.

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