Irish racing has a long and varied calendar, and I think we’re lucky that flat and jump racing is mixed so well. The Galway Festival is, of course, a perfect example of this. There, you get a flat race, then a hurdle, then a steeplechase. We’ve just had the Punchestown Festival (the curtain closer to the jump season), while the Dublin Racing is a new invention that’s on the rise, and Irish Champions Weekend (with one day at Leopardstown and one at The Curragh) is working well. Obviously, the success of our horses helps enormously, as does government funding to the tune of €73m, which assists with generous prize money.
Outside the big tracks, I find Gowran Park a lovely course. Bellewstown, too, is magic on a summer evening, and at Tramore you get up close to the horses. I always say to people, ‘go west’. In the west, you get the most wonderful atmosphere… whether you’re at Ballinrobe, Roscommon or Sligo. Killarney is extremely picturesque, and they hold a wonderful five-day festival in July. Wherever you are, though, there’s plenty to get involved with.
I think it’s true to say there’s a closer relationship between people and horses in Ireland than in the UK. I don’t know why that should be, but perhaps, if you look back historically, we didn’t mechanise when you did, and our farms are still very small (a 500-acre farm in this country is considered enormous, while it’s on the small side in the UK). Consequently, horses were used more in farming, which brought on family participation. Children grow up with ponies, and that’s contributed to the strength of hunting and gymkhanas.
For me, it was almost broadcasting first, racing second. Growing up, I listened to Peter O’Sullivan every Saturday, and I became infatuated with his voice… so much so, I even began delivering my conversation in commentary! I wrote to all the hunt secretaries from school, asking if I could commentate on their point-to-points, and I got the thumbs up from Co. Clare. I’d stand on a platform beside the parish priest, and he’d know the result before I did. Everyone had been to mass that morning, of course, so he knew who was going to pull up when.
Before long I got a call to commentate for RTÉ Radio. I must say I found that much harder than I thought I would. This was in the days before monitors, and royal blue when it’s been through the wash, and is still half a mile down the track, could be anything! I don’t miss the RTÉ presenting as much as I do the producing. At the start of my time on television, I joined forces with John Fairley, who’d made such a success of Channel 4 Racing, and had put Racing UK on the air. We made shows that were feature driven, and I think we made some really good programmes. That was a lot of fun to do.
If the UK could learn one thing from Irish racing, I'd say it would be to make inroads with the government. We’ve got a huge amount from our government, so if you can replicate that (and I think it’s required in England), you'll do well. There are all sorts of other things you can continue doing alongside that, of course: with fashion, encouraging local involvement, and strengthening university days out. But I’d urge British racing to first make an impression with Westminster.