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Horse racing in Ireland is a totally different environment compared to its North American counterpart. Racing operates year-round, as it does here, but Irish racing has two distinct seasons, flat racing in the summer and jumps in the winter. In his latest book, A Fine Place to Daydream, transplanted Californian sports author Bill Barich writes about his first winter in Ireland, the 2003-04 season, visiting steeplechase racecourses all over the countryside observing horsemen all aiming for the season-ending goal, the Cheltenham Festival in England. The Festival is to steeplechasing what the Breeders' Cup is to flat racing in North America, but has a strong nationalistic element as Irish racing fans and horsemen hope to beat the English on their home turf. Barich moved to Ireland after meeting an Irish woman during a trip to Paris.
In his travels through the Emerald Isle, he meets up with some of the many interesting characters that make up the Irish steeplechasing community. He visits the home of Paul Carberry, meeting the famous jockey's family and learning about the many injuries he has suffered in such a dangerous sport and the ongoing battles with weight in order to continue to ride. He visits the training facility of trainer Henrietta Knight who shows him some of her top horses and what her hopes are for them, especially the popular Best Mate, who wins his third straight Gold Cup during the timeframe of the book. He also meets with several bookmakers, from the high-profile Paddy Power (which is actually the name of the founder as well as the name of the company) to the small-timers who travel to the races on the same train with the fans, carrying their portable odds-boards preparing to stand out in the cold and rain to take bets. Despite increased competition from phone, off-course, and Internet betting offered by the big-name bookies, the on-course men and women are still able to eke out a living, but it is without doubt a very tough business.
And of course he visited racecourses across the country, which come in all shapes and sizes. From the ultra-modern and luxurious Leopardstown just outside Dublin, to the vast Curragh in County Kildare, home of the Irish Derby, to the small-time country tracks and point-to-point meetings with just a tent to provide shelter from the miserable winter weather, the Irish racing public demonstrates the passion their country has for the sport. Locals treat the races as a venue to take their families for an outing and to enjoy food and drink with their neighbors, and of course have a bet on the side. The Gaelic word "craic" (pronounced "crack") is used frequently, referring to the fun and camaraderie shared by the Irish racing fan, often fuelled by drink. Barich uses this to show that there is no comparison between a cheap Irish race meet and a similarly cheap American one, which typically consists of vast, empty, aging grandstands and a few hardened old men huddled around the simulcast TVs. He hopes that Irish racing never suffers the same fate.
This is a great first-hand look at the Irish steeplechasing scene through the eyes of an American racing fan. To help the reader, Barich used American racing terminology and converted euros and pounds (for purse values and wagers) to dollars. Fans used to the day-in-day-out, year-round monotony of flat races around identical-looking dirt ovals in front of a non-existent live audience will find Irish racing to be a much more interesting sport, with such a wide variety of racecourses (none are oval and all are turf), with horses running on the flat and over jumps over undulating terrain, and the competition between bookmakers and the tote for the best prices adding another exciting element to the betting game. Perhaps those in North America looking to save this sport need to look to Ireland for suggestions, as clearly the game is thriving there, with racing being so ingrained into the national consciousness.
A Fine Place to Daydream has a list price of $23.00 and is available from Amazon.com for $15.64.
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