‘I’d often look to the heavens and say, ‘Give us a dig out here Dad if you can’ – Clare hurling to Cheltenham hopes

‘I’d often look to the heavens and say, ‘Give us a dig out here Dad if you can’ – Clare hurling to Cheltenham hopes

EIGHT DAYS AGO in Navan, Brian McMahon thought of his father Eugene.

The trainer journeyed to the Meath racing track that morning, chasing a breakthrough.

At Christmas he had moved operations into the small yard he had purchased in the parish of Beagh, hard on the Clare-Galway border. Previously he had been renting a base off Noel Glynn at Spancilhill, just outside Ennis.

In the process of establishing his new home, he wanted a winner to mark it.

The two horses running carried their trainer’s hope and yet reality found a way to surpass that.

Seskinane won a handicap hurdle, over an hour later Sé Mo Laoch entered the winners’ enclosure as well. The double came in 149-1. New ground was broken.

The first success was tinged with emotion. Eugene passed away in the spring of 2015. He had bought Seskinane, his wife Anne now the owner of the 14-year-old.

“It’s probably totally coincidental but I suppose we’d be trying to put a narrative to it. I’d often look to the heavens and say, ‘Give us a bit of a dig out here Dad if you can’. It happened on Sunday and I’m happy to attribute some of it to that.

“After my Dad bought him, he got sick, he got a brain tumour. He’d one really good year after he bought him, he had an operation.

“So he spent a lot of time with Seskinane. Even though he didn’t ride himself, he used to hop up on Seskinane. You’d normally start off if you wanted to learn to ride you’d start off on a pony but I suppose his thinking was what was the worst that was going to happen given he was sick.

“The horse had such a good empathy with him. I was training on the beach in Sligo at the time and he’d walk him through the water, he’d walk him down the road and onto the sand and just give him a wee canter. For a man who’d never ridden a racehorse, the horse looked after him. He just had a bond with my Dad and the rest of the family knew it.

“My nephews Liam, Eoin, Daithi and Tadhg, there’s four of them from six down to four, there’s a pair of twins in it. They’d take turns riding Seskinane around at home, a couple of them or all four together. He’s a special horse.”

It was easy to illustrate the significance of the afternoon. McMahon currently has eight horses in training. He pointed out afterwards that for him a few winners over the course of a year would be a routine return, let alone a double from one meeting.

Then again his sporting background is not rooted in racing. Eugene McMahon was a retired principal in the village of Connolly. He was president of local hurling club Kilmaley and helped found the camogie section. That created a GAA environment at home with Brian and his four siblings – Clare, Conor, Diarmuid and Helen- all representing Clare county sides at various levels.

Diarmuid McMahon with the Clare hurlers in 2011

Source: James Crombie

“It was all hurling from when we were kids,” says Brian.

“The five of us would be out the front lawn, pucking around. We went through St Flannan’s, playing hurling with Kilmaley then and the two girls camogie with the county as well.

“Diarmuid had a long career with the county seniors, Conor played a couple of championship games with Clare. We were just a hurling family, like most people in the parish. We kind of didn’t know any different.”

In 1997 Brian had a front-row view for Clare’s colourful and pulsating hurling summer. He filled the role of minor corner-forward. His cousin Seanie was the senior defensive pillar. Their stories were interwoven in Croke Park that September. A pair of All-Ireland wins, Brian shooting home Clare’s solitary goal in the curtain-raiser.

“The county was on the crest of a wave all summer. I remember going to matches like the ’93 Munster final, getting hammered out the gate. Going into Flannan’s then, you’d the Tipp boarders and Galway boarders, you’d have your head down, getting an awful ribbing from them.

“Then you’d the senior and minor together, there was a fierce buzz around the county. Just a confident vibe, I remember distinctly feeling that. With the seniors you just felt they couldn’t get beaten with Lohan and Seanie and Colin Lynch and Jamesie and those.”

If the wider McMahon family were united in celebration then, they were on opposing sides on Clare county final day seven years later. Seanie wore number six for St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield. On the Kilmaley side, Conor was full-back, Diarmuid midfield and Brian full-forward.

19 years after Eugene McMahon played a starring role in Kilmaley’s maiden Clare senior triumph, his three sons were centrally involved as they lifted the Canon Hamilton Cup again.

Brian McMahon (front middle) part of the Kilmaley county senior winning team in 2004

Source: INPHO

“It was absolutely all consuming at the time. We hadn’t won one since ’85, my Dad was playing then and I was the mascot. We’d been to semi-finals and a final in ’98. I was in college in Dublin and travelling down weekends and one day during the week in the knockout stages.

“They’re hard won in any county especially when you wouldn’t have a massive tradition like Kilmaley. We’d a real good team. Conor Clancy and Colin Lynch, Diarmuid and Alan Markham. There was a great relief amongst us all, it was brilliant”

By then racing was competing with hurling for Brian’s sporting affections. In college in Galway, he fell in with a group that mixed watching races with a few pints and bets around Wood Quay.

“I’d have been friendly with Paudie Hassett, the son of Donie Hassett a trainer in Clare. I said I’d love to get into it a bit more, not just be a punter. I went down to their yard and sat up on just a quiet yoke going up the gallop. I’d no riding experience and it felt like I was in a Ferrari going a million miles an hour. It was some buzz. From then on, I was absolutely hooked.”

His pursuit of biochemistry qualifications kept him studying for eight years. He was still trying to learn as much as he could on weekends about the world of racing. Then came the sliding doors moment, when he was nudged towards it on a full-time basis.

“I came back from Dublin in ’07 and said I’d better earn a few quid. I got a job and it was grand. We were actually made redundant in ’09. I’d a chance then and I wasn’t going to let it bypass me. I’d no experience, just about managing to ride out myself. I wrote off to Paul Nicholls and Alan King and Jonjo O’Neill and Nicky Henderson, I said I’d write to the best of them in England.

“And Nicky Henderson got back to me, probably the most stuck of all for staff. I headed over there in the autumn of ’09 after we got knocked out of the hurling.”

The famed Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn was a melting pot of racing personalities and expertise.

“I said I’d just wing it as best I could until I was found out. I managed to hang on long enough. I remember the first fortnight in Nicky’s, I’d say he wanted to fire me every day. But I struck up a good relationship with the head lad, Corky Browne. He kept telling the Governor, ‘Ah give him another chance, he’s coming along’. By degrees then you’d be learning the ropes and you wouldn’t stand out for being terrible.

“Sure I ended up having a brilliant two years. The best of horses in England were there. You’d Sprinter Sacre, Binocular, Bob’s Worth (2013 Gold Cup winner) – he was my ride – Long Run, Punjabi. You’d be hitting for Ascot or Cheltenham on a Saturday with seven in the lorry and coming home with two winners, thinking it was a so-so kind of a day. That was the expectation in the place and indicative of the quality that was there.”

The level of talent extended to the jockeys as well.

“I started the same week as Jerry McGrath and Nico De Boinville, Dave Bass. Barry Geraghty had just started as stable jockey. Mick Fitz had just retired, he was still knocking about the place. It was the best of riders, just a centre of excellence really.

“I’d speak to Jerry a couple of times a week even still, go over and stay in his house, I’d be good mates with Nico and Conor Murphy, who was the assistant head lad at the time. From Cork, a mad horse racing and GAA man, he’d the five-timer in Cheltenham (in 2012) and pulled a million out of it. He hit for America then and set up training in Louisville in Kentucky. He actually has a leg in a horse of mine, Powersbomb that is hopefully heading to Cheltenham.”

Trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Nico De Boinville after Altior’s victory at Cheltenham in 2018.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

If he was always aware of the capacity for hurling to forge friendships, he’s grown to view racing in the same light.

“It really sticks out to me about racing, the camaraderie that’s in it. I think people realise that it’s tough and everyone is in the same boat together. I finished 6th in the Dan Moore in January at Fairyhouse. Hosing down the horse and Ted Walsh was beside me. The hose was kind of going everywhere, he said to pull him in here and Ted held the horse down for me.

“He was chatting away for ten minutes and was in no rush. I thought that was a measure of the man. He had just finished fourth in the same race. He didn’t care who you were, he gave of his time. It’s not every industry that you’d get that.”

On the lower rungs of the ladder, all that support is appreciated. Noel Glynn provided his first yard to help him start out, he’s now indebted to his neighbour John Staunton as a reliable sounding board and a companion to race meetings. Eoin Mahon is the other critical component to ensure the yard functions.

His father Steve shone during Galway’s golden hurling spell in the 80s and he plays himself for Beagh on the club senior stage.

“Eoin started coming into Noel Glynn’s, helping me out in the evenings. He was very inexperienced. But I said if this fella is hardy enough and tough enough to be playing Galway senior championship, he’s tough enough to go down to a fence at 30 miles an hour.

“There hasn’t been a cross word between us since we started. I remember reading in Mick Fitz’s book that he was in Henderson’s as stable jockey for 15 years and there was never a single falling out out of all the winners and losers he rode. I think it’s a good way to have it.

“You’re delighted to have a winner any day of the week with anyone riding it. To me it’s more important in the overall scheme of things that Eoin is riding because it’s healthier for the business. In my position you can’t be paying the bigger wages. I’d rather give Eoin the ride as he’s part of the team.”

He needs all those pitching in. Training only takes up part of his time, having to fit in with his role at Beckman Coulter in Tulla in East Clare. It makes for long and hectic days, there’s some business trips to China to be factored in as well but his employers are good to him and he makes it work.

“At the time I came back (from England) to work as a biochemist, I said I’d give it six months in the job, get a few quid together and then I’m gone again. It was just out of necessity that I took a job again. I couldn’t make it pay training full-time. I was stone wall broke most of the time.

“Funnily I found even the interaction with the people nearly the most important thing. You’d be at home in the yard all day near enough on your own and nothing to talk to only horses. You’d be going halfway around the bend.

“It was good to come in to work with graduates out of college. You’d hear the lingo of the younger guys. Start buying a pair of skinny jeans and that sort of craic, sure otherwise you wouldn’t have a notion.”

Brian likes moving between these two lives. All the graft can pay off for nights like last Sunday in Whelan’s Bar in Shanaglish. His brothers Conor and Diarmuid came up to celebrate the Navan double. A good crew of locals joined them as well, including Derek O’Connor, the amateur jockey trail-blazer.

Now Cheltenham looms on the horizon next month. Sé Mo Laoch has been entered in the Kim Muir and Powersbomb in the Grand Annual. The latter came home fourth in the Close Brothers Chase in 2017.

Powersbomb (far left) racing at Cheltenham in 2017.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“People might say you’re tilting at windmills going over there. Would you not find far handier races to have a go at? But when you’re in the stable yard at Cheltenham and the roar goes up from the grandstand, it sends a shiver down your spine, it’s akin to being nearly in Croke Park, that roar. It’s very hard to get a horse good enough to go there and I think when you have, it’s worth it to even just have a small chance.”

From hurling to racing, he’ll keep working and keep chasing breakthroughs.

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