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John Duggan: Thyestes Chase da...
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John Duggan: Thyestes Chase day just one reminder of what we're missing

John Duggan writes that the beauty of attending any sporting fixture won't be taken for granted once this wretched pandemic is under control.

Since 1954, Gowran Park in Kilkenny has staged the Thyestes Chase, the race that stops a county. 

Held on the last Thursday in January, Thyestes day captures the imagination of the South East.

I have gone a good few times over the last decade and it's been quite an experience.

The bus waits at Harold's Cross in Dublin and we all hop on, around 30 of us - before the driver departs for Noreside. It's quiet enough on the way down. The shirt is ironed and pristine, the long coat and scarf envelope the body, and the trilby sits upon the noggin, a fresh, crisp copy of the Racing Post in hand. No money spent, none lost.

First stop is the Lord Bagenal in Carlow, where the sausages, rashers, eggs, hash browns and mug o'tea are inhaled. This is Willie Mullins country, and the legendary trainer has farmed the Thyestes Chase on eight occasions. At the Lord Bagenal we would do a group bet; a Lucky 15 or whatever.

When you get to Gowran Park, you are greeted by the feel of a rural race day. It's misty, it's thronged, it's mucky, it's authentic. It's a gathering of the community, meeting friends, old and new, trying to back a winner and have the craic.

Upstairs you go, tucking into chicken and chips or roast beef, always slathered in gravy. Once the dinner is devoured and the water is drunk, the tank is ready for porter. You gather around a high table in the crowded room, asking the local sage, known as 'the guru' what he has heard. Any word? After you share whispers, the conversation often turns to Kilkenny hurling.

My racing pal Ricky is talking a dime a dozen. We scour the race card and the betting markets for Tom Foley runners. The legendary trainer of 'Danoli' likes to have winners at his local track. Will we do the jackpot? Often we miss it, distracted by some dead cert in England on the main TV.

Legendary racehorse 'Arkle' won the Thyestes in 1964 and 'Flyingbolt' took the prize in 1966. In recent years, 'Hedgehunter' and 'Numbersixvalverde' won the 3-mile affair en route to claiming the Aintree Grand National for Ireland.

Gowran Park is one of the few racecourses where you can see all the runners in the distance. The ground can get heavy - pudding ground - you wouldn't want to run up the finishing straight with a belly of beer. The paddock and betting ring are compact, the ring a square of intrigue. Wads of cash in pockets. Dead dockets on the ground.

The democracy of Gowran was summed up by the moment in 2010 when after training Whinstone Boy to win the Thyestes, trainer Jimmy Mangan nipped upstairs for a cup of tea. Ricky made a beeline for him and bought a full apple tart. Mangan replied, "you can take the man out of the country but not the country out of the man."

There were other moments. Seeing Priests Leap win back-to-back renewals in 2008 and 2009 at odds of 20 to 1 both times and not hearing a pin drop.

When the day would be done and the bus would be ready, there would be singing, pit stops on the dual carriageway for calls of nature, and then vouchers handed out back at Harold's Cross for free pints in the local. With mini pizzas on the side and gabbing about near misses or the 'best day ever' - it was mission accomplished. A great Thyestes day.

How could you take it for granted again? The same goes for any sporting occasion, any GAA game, football feast, or rugby rumble. Just to get out and savour the bustle of humanity.

Of course, we must wait. I know of someone who very sadly passed away recently because of COVID-19. Over 3000 people have lost their lives in Ireland to the virus.

When the darkness is gone and dawn appears after this pandemic, the joy in doing simple things one wouldn't have given a second thought to like going to the races will be a privilege.

Thyestes Day 2021 will be experienced at home, in front of a screen. Who to pick in the big one? Perhaps the Noel Meade trained 'Tout Est Permis', each way.

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