Upon crossing the threshold of the stable yard, the wiry young chap’s senses explode with the force of an atom bomb. His nose pricks at the near overwhelming fusion of sickly sweet manure, fresh haylage and dusty shavings along with that honeyed, somewhat minty aroma of feed as breakfast is served to 30 guests of honour. He stands there, rooted, taking in the charged atmosphere of this, his new world.
A man of obvious authority quickly takes notice of the blinking, foggy eyed youth, having his first introduction to the glorious 5 a.m wake-up. He strides purposefully towards the boy, his scrutinising gaze cold and stoney. “John O’ Neill, yes?” he states over the clatter of eager and hungry horses against hardwood stable doors and offers his bony, weathered hand. The handshake was that of a man who hasn’t quite decided whether or not you’ve earned his presence yet. A firm grip, up, down and finished. John, still rooted and lost for words, decides simply to stand with a confidence he certainly doesn’t feel. This man, who’s name had been ringing in John’s head for weeks, appraises him for a moment and then with a flash of fire in his eyes declares, “leave your bag here and Eric will start you off, we’ll talk later”.
Eric was a lanky, wise eyed, squeaky voiced youth with a tendency to pull at his fluffy scrap of stubble while he talked. Wearing a t-shirt several sizes too small with the letters R.A.C.E. proudly inscribed along with faded, dirty jeans tucked into worn, brown chaps and black boots, Eric was what John would soon call his ultimate role model. Eric, with laughing eyes and a gap-toothed, clumsy grin, announced “You’re new, eh? I’m Eric. Don’t mind the big guy, you’ll get used to him.” This handshake flopped like an energetic trout, waking John out of his stunned reverie as he finally realised that he hadn’t yet uttered a word. He managed to squeak out “John” before Eric spun around, nattering over his shoulder. He would supply “the grand tour”. This introduced John to a horse, a pitchfork, a bag of feed and a cup of tea, the latter of course being of utmost importance. John finally knew fear as he was thrown into a dimly lit stable to groom a towering, shiny black beast with rippling muscles and told “just be careful he don’t give you an aul’ nip or a tip with the back leg”.
And so it was for the first week, John up at the crack of dawn, cycling the mile to work wearing his new, shiny boots and the jodhpurs he hated but his mum made him wear. She wouldn’t have him wearing jeans because apparently “the seams would chafe” and she “just couldn’t bear the thought of it!” Breakfast was a fistfull of rasher roll on the way which of course nearly killed him as he cycled one-handed around a horse and jockey one day into the path of a tinted windowed, ‘suped-up’ Suzuki. At work he rushed around in a cloud of confusion, swathed in rugs, towered with saddles or heaving some pesky ragwort out of a corner-paddock. John’s day seemed to run to the backing of Eric’s laughter and His analytical, biting and veteran gaze, keeping a kind eye despite a cold face.
As John progressed through the second week of incessant mucking out, grooming and learning, he began to make out the definite order to what had at first seemed havoc. The mass of unmanagable beasts became real horses such as the friendly Sadlers Wells filly, the three two year olds or the Danehill colt who’d nip you if you gave him a chance. What amazed him most was the complex cocktail of tonics, powders and pastes that were added to each individual feed in the evening. A veritable potion for every animal, He knew exactly who needed what, how much and for how long. The feedroom was a maze of shelves, awash with bottles, smells, liquids and labels. John and a few others stood ready at a certain time every day to undergo His rapid string of demands concerning what to change, what to increase, to decrease, to switch or to add. He learned to stand looking calm and concentrated whilst his mind panicked and repeated and panicked and recalled until eventually a semblance of sanity returned. He would then try to reproduce this vital information with bated breath and shaking hands as he carried out that final, most complex and fascinating task of the day and ‘did the feeds’.
He began to spend more time with the Him as he went with him in the jeep for the second lot. John might re-tighten the girth, give Him a leg up or have the gear ready when he was done. It was during these times that he began to see past the legendary name that frequented the winners lists to the actual depth and brilliance of the man himself. The coldness thawed ever so slightly to allow in a dry humor that never undermined but rather emphasized his intelligence and experience, far superior to anyone John had yet to meet. It was during one of these trips to the Old Vic near the end of John’s second week that He clipped out those dreamed-of words, “I think you’re ready to ride, interested?”
The very next morning John was on the way to the gallops, astride a “safe aul’ lassie”, as Eric called her. He had almost smiled as he saw him join the group for the first lot in the yard, knees stuck beneath his chin and whip at the ready, perched like a somewhat demented Ruby Walsh. “You aren’t there yet lad, let ‘em down a few holes and lose that stick!” He barked to a chorus of muted chuckles. They warmed up by trotting through the furze whilst John, as green riders are prone to do, found himself in everyone’s way, trying their patience to the very last.
As they approached the gallops, a few nostrils beginning to flare and legs to dance (except the “aul’ lassie”, of course), the long, curving, woodchip track aroused within John a sort of frantic excitement, nervous yet exhilerated. This sensation wasn’t helped when they passed Him standing at the jeep and He gave John instructions that put all previous tasks to shame. He was to “ease her on to it, hold her up till you tuck her in, keep her out then let her on, then hold her up again and ease her around, stay up but not too hard, let her lengthen, take it up on the last, run it out then let her down”. Unbeknownst to John, these instructions were indeed directed at the rider in front of him, and he was but to follow on behind.
Despite the confusion, the “aul’ lassie” pulled through and gave John the ride of his life. He knew by the first lap that this was for him. Despite aching legs and moaning back, he worshipped the fierce breeze, a cool Goddess in this new world of passion. His jacket whipped in the wind as he held himself rigid, knowing only the beat of her hooves, the bob of her head and the adrenaline, pumping his body like liquid fire. He continued on, focused yet under the rhythmic trance of his newborn love.
Eventually the group began to ease and John, relishing a sweet satisfaction within, knew he was different, reborn, a child of The Curragh. As they walked slowly by the jeep again, John feeling that familiar constriction bind his chest, his face cringed with nerves, fear and apology. “Did I do it right?”, “Will He be disappointed?”, “Will I get to ride again?” These questions sped through his mind as he glanced hopefully down at Him. He looked on sternly, glanced up, cracked a knowing smile and observed, “It’s fun eh? You did well”.