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By Alan Magee

The world of hunting and point-to-points has a proud history going back many years, and no area boasts a stronger tradition than the Duhallow hunt in Co.Cork.

Records going back to 1745 show a continuous hunt in the region, making it the oldest in the country. Point-to-points also have their origin nearby with the term “steeplechase“ derived from a challenge between Blake and O’Callaghan to race cross country from the church steeple in Buttevant to Doneraile in 1752.

The Duhallow foxhounds hunt a large area in the rebel county, stretching from Charleville in the north to Blarney in the south, and Fermoy in the east to the Kerry border westwards. The hunt is still thriving today with 200 members young and old, and numbers on a days hunting have to be restricted to between 50 and 60.

The list of past Masters of the Hunt is an illustrious one, and includes Captain Harry Freeman-Jackson, who represented Ireland in three-day eventing at the Olympics, and David Nagle, whose Barronstown Stud bred such stars as Generous and Yeats.

Arguably the greatest trainer of all time, Vincent O’Brien, hails from the heart of this area in Churchtown, while many renowned riders have taken part in the Duhallow hunt over the years including Jonjo O’Neill and Norman Williamson. Best Mate’s regular partner Jim Culloty is currently an active member, while Grand National winning jockey Brendan Powell cut his teeth with the pony club in the Duhallow. Present day riders who started off in the Duhallow hunt include Tadhg O’Shea, Richie McLernon and promising youngster Eddie Lenihan.

Pat Coleman has been associated with the hunt for well over 40 years, and has diligently carried out the position of secretary since 1989. He epitomizes the all consuming spirit of many “horsey“ people in this area saying; “Some people play football or golf but horses have always been the main interest in my life. We hunt in the winter, go to point-to-points in the spring and then its on to show-jumping and eventing in the summer.“

Coleman’s wife Bets is secretary of the Duhallow point-to-point which is held at Dromahane, while other point-to-point fixtures held under the auspices of the Duhallow hunt are Liscarroll, Kildorrery and Kanturk. Committee meetings start many months in advance but the community all muck in to ensure everything goes to plan. “We rely on the goodwill of professional people like doctors and vets to give up their time. There are probably about 30 volunteers on the day when you include fence stewards, safety stewards, gate men and others,“ added Coleman.

The track at Dromahane, owned by Billy and Nives O’Brien, has been in existence since 1990 and is “the nearest thing you’ll get to a proper racecourse with railing around the track and all-weather surfaces for parking“ according to Coleman. The left-handed circuit is situated in a huge field of 120 acres and, being over 500 ft above sea level and on a sandstone base, has proved more than capable of coping with the elements. Coleman confirmed this by saying; “It could rain for a month and still be raceable! They have never lost a meeting to waterlogging.“

Horse numbers at the Duhallow point-to-point meeting have held up well with nine or ten races still the norm but attendances have dropped in recent years. The recession has not escaped the point-to-point community as Coleman explains. “The sale of race cards is a good gauge of numbers at a meeting, and we have gone from a high of 3,000 cards down to about 1,500.“

A colourful mix of characters all make the point-to-point experience unique, with the local farmer training one or two that his son might ride taking on professional outfits with a keen eye on turning a profit. A lot of the top British trainers have their own scouts on duty to give a first hand report, while word of “a good one“ will travel like wildfire on the grapevine.

Former top rider and now a successful trainer, Adrian Maguire was one of those with a star on his hands after Denman won his point at Liscarroll. Despite a six year gap since the dawning of a future Gold Cup winner, Maguire remembers it like it was yesterday. “He was keen on the day and we decided to jump him off in rear. He picked up very well from the back of the second last.“ The rest is history!

Maguire is complementary of the track at Liscarroll with its two long straights and two sharp bends, while he has good reason to extol the virtues of the Dromahane venue having ridden six winners from six rides on a seven race card as a teenager. “Its a fair track but its demanding and testing. It takes a good horse to win, and the standard is as hot as any meeting in the Cork/Waterford area. Billy O’Brien does a good job with the track, and I regularly use his schooling facilities as its always good to get them jumping on grass,“ said the Lombardstown trainer.

Liscarroll was also the launch pad for the highly promising Peddlers Cross, while Dromahane has also graced many future stars over the years such as Ask Tom, Function Dream and Tricky Trickster. The abundance of land at Dromahane means there is plenty of fresh ground for their seven meetings, and the track is moved in by 24 ft after each meeting to ensure a good racing surface throughout the year. Incidentally O’Brien and his son Maurice run a fence building business, supplying and erecting fences for many point-to-point meetings around the country as well as for individual trainers.