Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ballymore’s Purple ‘Patch’

It’s almost inconceivable that in these days of mobile phones, helicopters, agents, Sunday racing, internet betting, two full racing channels on television etc. that a Ballymore man would be ranked as top jockey for six full seasons during the sixties and seventies. At this time competition was fierce, travel was difficult, there were no means of instant communication, and race meetings were not as numerous or as lucrative. So as we leave Cheltenham and Fairyhouse behind for another year and look forward to Punchestown and further on, to Galway, it seems fitting that we take some time to remember the great Bobby Coonan.

Robert ‘ Patch' Coonan was born in Dowdenstown in 1939. ‘Patch’ came from Pacelli, the surname of Pope Pius XII, who acceded to the top job in the Vatican, in the same year. In that year most of Europe was preoccupied with a different struggle but young Bob had no such worries and was riding almost as soon as he could walk.

In racing lore they say that a double cross of St. Simon is the best outcome for a racehorse. St. Simon of course, was the most successful sire in the history of the thoroughbred. Bob’s brother Ian reckons that his younger brother was blessed with the gift, as both Robert Sen. from Rathcoffey, and his Mam, an O’Neill from Ballymore, had horsey blood running through their veins. Mrs. Coonan started off by showing horses to British Army officers garrisoned in Ireland. While Robert senior attended to the more mundane business of the law, Mrs. Coonan had quite a deal of success with Klaxton. Indeed the Coonan family was dominant in both Punchestown races, The Bishopscourt Cup, five times and the Tickell Cup on three occasions. Coonan Sen. was also successful in the Drogheda Plate in 1947 with Auntie Anna. A picture dating from 1945 shows Mrs. Coonan with Claxton having won the May Plate at Naas with a purse of 360 sovereigns.

At six years of age young Bob was riding ponies at events in counties Kildare, Carlow and Wicklow. Long time friend and schoolmate Monsignor Seamus Conway, Parish priest of Booterstown, recalls interrupted trips to school where Bobby would gaze longingly at Joe Osborne’s team riding out at Craddockstown.
Indeed all the family were encouraged nay coerced into involvement in matters equine. All the Coonan siblings, Charlie, Ann, Bobby, Ian, Consuelo and Stuart, attended to the horses. They were the primary focus of activity on the Coonan farmstead with some attention paid to the other livestock. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bobby would have a career in racing. The first step to attaining his goal was to be an indenture to the Staff Ingham yard in Epsom arranged by family friend Fred Hunter. Bob was candid about this time, describing in variously as being like a strict boarding school, penal servitude, or even a concentration camp. It was nothing to Ingham to encourage his protégées to watch their weight whilst tucking into a large dinner! Ingham though put a lot of promising jockeys through his hands, Geoff Lewis being one of the best known. The combination of this with the thoughts of compulsory service in the British Army was enough to convince young Bobby to pack his bags and head home to Dowdenstown.

In 1957 Michael Molloy provided Bobby with a single winner on the flat in Clonmel, Fair Dawn. This was to be a somewhat lonely statistic as weight and experienced dictated a move to the more exciting code in 1958. He gained valuable experience with Dan Moore Senior in Meath. Claiming jockey in the yard that had Willie Robinson as the main man was not exciting enough for Bob and his ambition dictated that he move along. He has always remembered the kindness shown to him by Mrs. Moore and spoke of her with great affection at every stage during his lifetime.

With an attachment to Georgie Wells, Bobby was able to avail of regular rides on decent horses, and even better have his pick of rides. The prospect of riding winners regularly now seemed to be within his grasp. Full circle was turned as he became the main retainer for the Joe Osborne yard. With a veritable arsenal of rides it was to enable twenty four year old Bobby to make history as part of a four way tie for the Irish NH Jockeys championship. Tony Redmond, Francis Shortt and Pat Taaffe. Success at the Guinness Chase in Punchestown that same year aboard the little mare Height O Fashion meant that the local hero was top of his game.

The partnership with Paddy Sleator meant that horses sent out from the Grangecon yard would ensure that Bobby would win the jockeys title every year between 1967 and 1972. A dispute over the running of bumpers meant that Sleator switched a lot of his charges to Warwickshire to premises maintained by Arthur Thomas. This brought cross channel success to the young Coonan but when the issue was resolved Bob was back home and riding winners in all parts of Ireland. The foot and mouth outbreak in 1967/68 meant the suspension of all activity in both Ireland and England. Sleator sent a string to Cagnes Sur Mer in the south of France. It was there that Bobby first met Shelagh, who he was later to marry. Back to business with Sleator with all issues resolved saw three Galway Plate successes. 1969 saw an Irish Grand National win with the aforementioned Height O Fashion and the following year Bobby was in the Cotswold’s to partner Ballywilliam Boy to the post in the Gloucester. Later success on Glencarraig Lady in the SGB at Ascot was to make up for ill luck on two occasions at Cheltenham.

Pat Taaffe never forgot the style of his former rival and was to open a new chapter in Patch’s career with Captain Christy. A King George at Kempton 1n ’74 was followed quickly by a win in the PZ in Thurles, The big chase, the Powers Gold Cup at his home track, Punchestown and a Prix de Velay were also secured by the partnership.

The life of a jump jockey is one of ups and downs and the major down came at Killarney in 1978. A serious fall not only put paid to his riding career but could have killed him. Sister in law Patricia says without a combination of the care of the medical team in St. Vincent’s in Elm Park and Bob’s fighting sprit that it could have been a premature end to his racing career. Taking over from Paddy Sleator left his old master free to adjudicate on various disputes. A lot of you will have heard the story of the Bishopcourt Cup but it loses little in the retelling. The Bishopcourt race is as old as Methuselah. The rules say that it is confined to certified hunters, owned by farmers farming land in the Kildare Hunt District. Sleator, asked to adjudicate, on a dispute involving the race was asked for a definition of a Kildare farmer. “He’s a man,” he offered, “who eats his dinner at lunchtime.” Subsequent doubts were subsequently answered by a visit from the entry committee to a prospects kitchen during the middle of the day! The same economic standards meant that Bobby’s training career, though successful, was short. He moved back to Briencan to a purpose built establishment to continue his interest in all forms of the horse. To him, it was a source of great satisfaction that the improvements in racing and prize money in Ireland, together with the strong economy, meant that a lot of good horses now stay at home.

The double cross of St. Simon is not easy to shrug off and Peadar Flanagan says that during his time in St. Brigid’s in the Curragh that they considered fitting turnstiles the number of his visitors. The hoof prints in the hallway were ever present as Bobby found a new, and renewed, audience for his yarns among his family, his racing friends and fans and the people of Ballymore.

Fred Daly tells a good yarn of a trip to Kilbeggan with Bob’s great friend and racing buddy, Johnny Clarke from Mullacash. Clarke was AWOL and passing through Kilcock had to duck down while Daly steered past the project. A good day was had by all and the whole party adjourned to Higgins’s bar in Ballymore.
Johnny was backwards astride a chair at the end of the night showing how ‘Patch’ came from behind to pip his rival and lift the spoils. Doubtless Johnny would have been carrying a pound or two overweight than Bobby.

So a brilliant career for the Ballymore man ended peacefully on March 3rd 2007.
In these days every jockey has an agent, a sponsored vehicle and a mobile phone. With the increase in prize money there are more Irish bred horses staying at home, giving more opportunities for Irish jockeys. The Race Academy in Kildare Town produces top class, well trained boys and girls for the equine industry who have a solid education to fall back on at the end of their racing days. The At the Races and Racing UK dedicated television racing channels. All these factors have led to a huge renewal of interest in racing in Ireland. No better monument to Bobby Coonan and his peers that that the game that they loved has continued and flourished in our cosmopolitan country.

A lot of punters follow particular jockeys, Piggott and Kinane on the flat, McCoy, Timmy Murphy from Two Mile House and Ruby Walsh from Kill spring readily to mind. For my Da and many others like him it would have been Bobby Coonan. Great cheers and a winner, different story when not successful. But as my There's some that ride the Robbo style, and bump at every stride; Da always said “Coonan is a good each way jockey.”

Nowadays when a horse wins a big race it, its trainer and jockey are feted on the streets of their home place. Sean Mulryan continues this tradition locally when he has a winner. Anyone near him gets a pint. Acclaim for Bobby locally would not have been vast. However he was one of the people acknowledged at the Ballymore Punchestown Festival celebrations in , held to celebrate 150 years of racing in Punchestown. The Punchestown Kid. Johnny McLough, Tom Hanlon and a few others were acclaimed. Following his presentation, Bobby was asked to say a few words. Standing before all his friends and admirers in Ballymore he read a poem written by A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Paterson, an Australian writer from the turn of the century wrote may great poems, “Fr. Reilly’s Mare, “Only a Jockey,” “The amateur Rider,” “the man from snowy river,” the magnificent “Old Pardon, the son of Reprieve.” But probably my favourite, and the most appropriate is “The Riders in the Stand.”
My thanks to all who contributed in the making of this piece, particularly Ian and Patricia Coonan. On Walking Sunday April 22nd Bobby will be uppermost in a lot of people’s minds. I’m sure that in the near future our local racecourse will honour his memory with a race named for him.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

There's some that ride the Robbo style, and bump at every stride;
While others sit a long way back, to get a longer ride.
There's some that ride as sailors do, with legs, and arms, and teeth;
And some that ride the horse's neck, and some ride underneath.

But all the finest horsemen out -- the men to Beat the Band --
You'll find amongst the crowd that ride their races in the Stand.
They'll say "He had the race in hand, and lost it in the straight."
They'll know how Godby came too soon, and Barden came too late

They'll say Chevalley lost his nerve, and Regan lost his head;
They'll tell how one was "livened up" and something else was "dead"
-- In fact, the race was never run on sea, or sky, or land,
But what you'd get it better done by riders in the Stand.

The rule holds good in everything in life's uncertain fight;
You'll find the winner can't go wrong, the loser can't go right.
You ride a slashing race, and lose -- by one and all you're banned!
Ride like a bag of flour, and win -- they'll cheer you in the Stand

Tim Ryan

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