Premonition – A Story of Ireland
Peter is a member of a large Irish family. His parents had sixteen children and left thirty-eight grandchildren when they died. He was born in Dublin in the war years and attended University College, where he qualified as a veterinary surgeon. He spent his formative years in a mixed practice in Devon before starting his own business in Fermoy, Co.Cork at a time when it was about to become the biggest Thoroughbred breeding centre in Europe. He subsequently practised in central England, where he became involved in racing and published twelve equestrian books.
Writing a memoir is a personal and somewhat intrusive exercise: it can be a duty, it can be a compulsion. Premonition fells into the latter category and even now I have to ask why. Having spent much of my life entertaining the thought, my natural inclination always was to turn away. I’m a horse vet, not a writer. But there we are.
Certain inclusions were critical. The silver spoon in Derrygarron which, though I was tiny then, still sits like a beacon in my mind. Then there was the barn they lived in after after being ejected from their home and the nearby strong flowing stream that spouts out of a hole in the ground – their water source, no doubt. It still spooks me. Imagination still asks how they managed to survive the trauma, how they died and why they were shunted into a hovel.
Then there was the constant mention of Ballyaddon itself. I found a contact on Google and went there. As a boy in Portlaoise, there was a drip-drip of more information, though my experience there as a student would be even more significant. This was my first time to feel like a voyeur, particularly when meeting members of families whose past interlinked with those of mine.
I’ve met many prominent people over the course of my life, but how come I met the man who blew my father off the road in an ambush – nearly 40 years later? And the very family who chased the Moores out of Laois; the people my family bought their land from after eviction. Meeting two ex-Black and Tans later was equally strange. Why these things? Then Fermoy, where the same theme carried on and why did it feel so familiar? And G M? God help us.
You might know the answers better than me after you’ve read this book.
Philip Solomon is the owner of Radio Caroline, a pirate station operating from a ship just outside territorial waters in the British Channel. A tall dark-haired man, he’s Jewish and has a broad forehead, deep voice and prominent nose. He wears thick horn-rimmed glasses and I’m introduced to him at Kent’s yard in June ’70. Secluded in the back of a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, he doesn’t fancy getting his nice shoes dirty. A businessman and entrepreneur, he’s a strange figure for a busy Cork farmyard, if well known in the Thoroughbred world. He owns racehorses and stallions, has earned a certain notoriety from buying the stallion Tower Walk during the first bank strike. By all accounts, it was a considerable coup, if somewhat unscrupulous. The cheque he handed over couldn’t be cashed for months.
Solomon wants Kent to buy the best Flat bred foals of the year, the idea being to find future two year olds with stallion value. It’s almost an impossible dream, but Kent says he’ll only do it if I go with him as his vet. It would mean a few weeks away at sales in Dublin, Doncaster and Newmarket, as well as visits to private studs to inspect foals not going to public sales. But I’m not ready for anything like it yet. The potential for error is too great.
Then Kent says he won’t do it if I won’t go. But I’m still learning the most basic aspects of my work and, each night, have to immerse myself in texts. No matter how exaggerated is his opinion of my ability, it’s out of my league. All I have is a hard neck and lack of fear.
Eventually, however, I let him talk me into it, as he’s someone who never accepts ‘no’ as an answer and I’m not very good at saying it either. It offers a little excitement perhaps, as well as a promise of adventure. If it works out, business might benefit. If not, I could end up in court.
We leave home the weekend before the November Sales and take a trip up the west coast. Our first stop is at Lord Peter Patrick Hemphill’s place near Gort in County Galway, where we look at a few foals. Kent impresses the man with the seriousness of our mission and the depth of the pocket we’re representing. Nothing’s more impressive to a seller than a wealthy buyer looking at his stock, but I’m surprised at the starkness of Hemphill’s country seat. It’s similar to some of the relics I’ve seen in places like Stradbally as a student; and the idea of an English title is, to my rebel blood, a little difficult. But we see some nice foals and leave an impression of being significant prospective buyers.
Our next call is to the home of John Huston, the film director, at St. Clerans in Galway. The famed man isn’t there, but we see his foals and admire nude paintings in the downstairs loo.
Finally, that day, we’re at the home of Sir Peter Nugent near Mullingar. One of the auctioneers at the Dublin sales, he’s clearly eager to generate a good deal for his foals. He lives in a lovely Georgian lodge slightly creaking at the seams and it’s evident from the conversation there are financial pressures. Kent, who knows him well, assures Nugent of the genuineness of his client and that we’re interested in his foals. Big money, we like his foals. No problem.
However, Solomon doesn’t arrive in Dublin and Kent has no consent to buy in his absence. Nugent isn’t very happy when there’s no bid from our quarter as his foals go through the ring and I’m on the receiving end of a withering look when he passes later.
Possibly, he failed to adequately protect his interests, but it’s nothing to do with me. I’m just the supporting team.
I’m able to stay at 118 the same week, which saves me from the smell of Kent’s socks, as I’ll endure later in Doncaster. Solomon doesn’t arrive there either, but the class of foal isn’t what Kent would recommend, so it’s on to Newmarket. When we get there on the Sunday before the opening of the six-day December Sales and book into the Rutland Hotel, I can sense my grandmother’s genes fizzling in my veins; this town was the heartbeat of her favourite Flat jockeys. Kent takes me to meet a bloodstock agent who asks me to examine some animals for him. He doesn’t know, either, that I’m wet behind the ears. Solomon makes his appearance the following morning but the week is disrupted before it begins by an incident in the first hour that casts a shroud on the whole scheme thereafter.
Lester Piggott is the owner of the first European foal to be sold at public auction by the Derby winning sire, Sir Ivor, one of the best horses he ever rode. The colt is small and a little undeveloped, but will become the successful Cavo Doro, placed in the Irish Derby at the Curragh a few years later. Lester is inclined to withdraw, as his is one of the early lots and the foal will appear before the sale has a chance to take off. He’s afraid it won’t get a bid – but
Solomon talks him into putting it on the market. There’ll be someone to buy it back, if not making enough, he promises. The stud fee for Sir Ivor is twelve thousand at this time and Solomon is convinced the foal will make a lot more. However, though the world knows he isn’t short of a penny, the enigmatic jockey is renowned for how he looks after his loot.
The only problem then is that the bidder Solomon arranges happens to be an alcoholic from a well-known Irish racing family. And what do alcoholics do? They go to the bar and don’t come back. Consequently, the foal is sold for twelve thousand and the air is red as it’s being led from the ring. It’s as if an incendiary bomb has gone off and Solomon is back in London when the smoke clears, all phone lines dead and we alone again, without instructions.
Kent gets in a flap and is probably anxious about his prospective wages for the week. He assures me everything will be okay, then provides a list of foals to examine and packs me off around studs and stables to find them. My task is to examine each potential purchase and report back. This involves heart and eyes, size, movement, conformation, athleticism; the man wants detail. But, though he eventually gets a line to Solomon and recommends particular foals, no consent is given. Not a single bid is laid by Kent on Solomon’s behalf all week. This goes on from day to day; and it materialises that the foals Kent recommends turn out to be among the best two-year-olds of their year. There has to be an element of luck to this, even in the fact they ever get to a racecourse, but the achievement is duly noted and word is spread. We, subsequently, are the ones to pick foals – as a team. On the Friday, Solomon returns and says he’s going to make up for the debacle by buying a Sir Ivor filly foal being sold that afternoon. How this is supposed to work out is unclear. Anyway, I’m sent to vet her and she’s a big and beautiful animal. In time, she’ll be named ‘Lady Elizabeth’ and we’ll cross paths again when she’s foaling some years later.
Being sold by Charlie Haughey, his somewhat abused and saturated features appear in the area of her stable as I’m there. In the event, she’s bought by Vincent O’Brien for a figure in the region of forty-two thousand guineas – a European record price for a foal at the time.
Solomon never gets a look in, but I’m paid for my week and never see the man again. It’s an experience, and I arrive home very aware of the potential for dodgy dealing. The individuals to exercise it are in ready supply.
The week, however, leads to more contacts and a door starts to open that I don’t know if I want to pass through. While I wasn’t involved in any dishonesty, the whole integrity of the business isn’t policed. There’s a smell in the air, even if the wider picture is enticing and it might be possible to be a part and stay clean. For now, though, I’ll float on the tide. But how far will it go and how much control will I have over my destiny?
It’s a strange feeling, being led into areas where I know my knowledge is inadequate, and even with some of the more prominent names in the business. Just one error and they might be playing the Dead March. But I live by something Ned once said to me: ‘Never become a rich man’s lackey.’ Here I am, in a world far removed from the one I was brought up in. On the one hand, there are respectable wealthy people whose integrity is beyond question. They’re knowledgeable, addicted to horses and good to deal with. On another, wealthy people of a different kind have different standards of honesty. Then there are obvious crooks and many are a serious part of the whole pattern. There are hangers-on, too. And vets. It’s the smell of corruption more than anything else that will eventually lead me to turn away – perhaps some good has came from all the religion. But the same faces are still to be seen today, pulling the same old tricks. They smile in delight when they pull a ‘stroke,’ but they’re as patent as they’re greedy and unscrupulous. And it runs through the whole business, both breeding and racing. If there are honest people, they have to be clever to stay unscathed, but many decide to leave the scene completely.