If I thought he'deat it," said Michael Brennan sincerely, "I'd buy that bird a bloodyherring." The old sea gull heaved itself off the low-tide mud of Colliganestuary and flapped ponderously toward the Drum Hills of Ireland's CountyWaterford. "Didn't I tell you?" Brennan yelled suddenly. "Watch hernow! Watch the little black bitch go!"
In a splatter ofmud, a young greyhound, which surely had a name in the studbook of the IrishCoursing Club but would be "the little black bitch" until she raced,turned and gave wild chase to the gull; it was an instant signal for the half adozen other saplings (hounds no longer puppies but not yet mature enough forthe track) to go streaming after her in a daft, pointless, joyful pursuit. Thegull gained height slowly, like a very old DC-3, and after a furious quartermile the saplings gave up, wheeled and hurtled back at us. I made a few passeswith the leafy branch Brennan had given me to ward them off, but they werearound me and on me in seconds, lending a snappy Dalmatian effect to my shirtand trousers. "Fresh on an hour ago," I mourned to Brennan, but hedidn't appear to notice. "Can you imagine," he was exulting, "whatthe pull of the mud is doing to those back-leg muscles!"
Yes, I couldimagine that, all right. I had felt the effect on my own legs as I hauled themthrough the black, glutinous County Waterford mud, sinking knee-deep at eachstep, teetering perilously when my boots stuck. (The slob, the Irish call suchplaces, leaving no doubt where the word's more familiar meaning comesfrom.)
In an hour theAtlantic would come whispering in, transforming the mud into a shimmeringmirror of water fit to match the elegiac beauty of the gray and green hillsaround, but meanwhile Brennan still rhapsodized over the seabirds that weretraining his dogs for him. "Two herrings, a box of herrings, I feel likeleaving out for them every morning...." One night soon for sure, you couldtell he was thinking, those muscles, toughened in the Colligan mud, would sendthe black bitch streaking out of the steel trap under the arc lights of thetrack at Youghal or Clonmel or Cork as the electric hare flashed by. Or even inLondon or Miami.
September 5, 1971
This would not bea particularly out-of-the-way dream. Here on the Colligan we were in theheartland of greyhound breeding, just a mile away from Dungarvan town, whichmust be the only place ever to have erected a marble monument to a racing dogin order, as the Dungarvan Observer put it, "that all might read the doingsof the greatest dog of all time." In Dungarvan it is not wise to showignorance of which animal this might be. Master McGrath, the Mighty Black, theImmortal Black, the Irish Wonder, as 19th century sporting buffs loved to callhim.
Master McGrath(pronounced "McGraw") won the Waterloo Cup three times and waspresented to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle with a blue ribbon around hisneck. Besides which, he could talk. Leastways according to the ballad sung byPaddy Nolan, whom Michael had introduced to me as "a hell of a great oldlover of the greyhounds" in the Dungarvan pub known mysteriously as theHigh Chaparral. At the Waterloo Cup of 1869, having been insulted by theEnglish favorite, Rose, as to the country of his birth, the Immortal Black hadreplied via Paddy Nolan's nasal tenor...
" 'I know,'says McGrath, 'we have wild heather bogs,
But you'll find in old Ireland there's good men and dogs.
So lead on, bold Britannia, give none of your jaw,
And shove that up your nostrils,' says Master McGrath."
The tales theytell in Dungarvan about his birth and death have already assumed legendaryproportions. In one version, like King Cyrus of Persia, Master McGrath wascondemned at birth to be drowned—in the Colligan as a weakling—but a perceptivekennel boy refused to obey orders and reared him up secretly. The whereaboutsof his grave, like King Arthur's, are uncertain. Some say he is buried atLurgan in Ulster, others that he lies, God help him, in the gardens of CulfordHall, Bury St. Edmunds, England, where there is also a monument to him, butonly in bronze.
In Dungarvan,almost a century after his death, you are never very far away from MasterMcGrath, and men like Michael Brennan are never far from the dream that theywill produce another like him, though the Master was a coursing dog, releasedto live hares in an enclosure, not a track star. Every evening, on any countryroad in Ireland, you'll see men exercising greyhounds, part-timers like Michaelwith the hope that a great fortune is round the corner. And not too wild a hopeeither. Any one of the saplings that Michael was now hammering to the limits oftheir endurance on the Colligan mud could turn out to be what he calls inaudible capitals A Classic Winner.
Not that it waslikely that he, Michael Brennan, would ever pose self-consciously himself fornews pictures clasping the trophy for the English Oaks or the FlaglerInternational, a sleek and beautiful winning greyhound at his side. Likethousands of other Irishmen, mad about the dogs, he is a primary producer—abreeder, on a small scale, who trains some of his promising pups in the finestcountry in the world for it, selling most of them, but keeping and racing afew. The pups are sold mostly in England, and the sums involved are not large.The most money Michael ever had in his hand at once, he says, was 1,350 pounds,and that was for two dogs. But though the greyhounds he breeds may be soldtwice or three times over, to an agent in Dublin, to an English buyer, to aneventual owner, in Michael's mind they remain his forever.
The saplingscrashed through the watercourse as he whistled them up again, and stood aroundhim, tongues lolling out, rib cages showing starkly as they heaved for breath,slim hounds out of medieval tapestries. The little black bitch shoved her nosein for a special rub. "She has the look of Mister Motion, a dog I oncebred, you know?" Michael said. "He ran five races for me and he wonfour out of five, but I was building my house at the time and I was very shortof money so I took him up to the sales in Dublin. I reckoned he was worth 500pounds, but that day I'd have sold him for anything I could get so I came homewith 350. He went to England and he won a mint of money in open races at theWhite City Stadium in London. I've got the name of the owner and the trainerwritten down somewhere," he said with a wistful pride. "I've had secondin the English Derby and another second in the Oaks and all manner of otherraces.... Well, by God, look at the country they were trained in."
We were leavingthe slob behind us now, crossing into a little oakwood that gave onto meadowsthick with hay. The saplings quartered the undergrowth, looking for anythingthat moved. "How in hell could you raise a greyhound in a backyard inLondon?" Michael asked as the long, wet grass swished the mud from ourboots and the sweet, heavy coconut scent of the furze filled the air. "Hewouldn't know what to do if you set him loose. A real greyhound is a chaser anda killer, he'll take off after anything and tear it to pieces if he has thechance. Then you put him into training, he's locked up and exercised morningand evening. But he's longing, longing for this open ranging he knew in the olddays and when you take him to the track he'll break his neck to go after thehare because it's so long since he's had the chance of chasing and tearinganything." The saplings picked up an old fox scent and poured across thehayfield after it.
"I'll takethem back now," Michael said, "and they'll be flopped out for the restof the day. They couldn't even take a bit of meat, just lap some milkmaybe." He whistled them in and got them onto leather leashes. We came outof the farm gate and onto the road below his house.
Joan Brennan wasstanding by the gate that Michael had had surmounted by a fine wrought-ironsilhouette of a greyhound going flat out. "You'd never credit the number ofmen who stop for a chat when they see the old dog up there," he said,dodging a hard look he was getting from Mrs. B. "There's people in Irelandinterested in horses and fishing and there's some that's even keen on chickens.But there's far more, I'm telling you, that's mad on the dogs."
"Why,"said Mrs. Brennan inexorably, "are you wearing your best pants?"
"I onlymarried her, you know, to have somebody to feed the pups when I'm working,"said Michael, still not meeting her in the eye. "You'd better come in toyour lunch, then," she said, neatly parrying his clearly antique domesticjest. She let her eye wander coolly over my mud-bespattered clothes as well."And you might as well bring Mr. Jinx in with you."
"I've—er—promised to meet some people in Dungarvan, Mrs. Brennan," Isaid. Michael looked up at this unexpected treachery on his flank. I was notretreating because of my appearance, though, but because I knew why she calledme a jinx.
"Be back asfast as you can, then, if you want to see Rommel's Legacy get his specialfeed," Michael said. "I have to be at work by 2:30."
"Maybe itwould be better if I steered clear of Rommel until after tomorrow?" I saidcarefully.
Joan Brennan didnot come forward eagerly to brush this suggestion aside, but Michael said,"The only sure thing about luck is that it changes."
"I'll take achance on that, then," I said, "and I'll be back around two."
I'd first metRommel's Legacy a month before, a big, brindled dog, the pride of his kennels."He's a genuine old fella," Michael had told me, "but he had aterrible bit of bad luck last year after he'd won three times at ShelbournePark in Dublin. He broke a toe out on the bog and that would have been the endof any ordinary class of greyhound. But the old lad, he's always had a greatheart, so we sent him up to the vet in Dublin, and I told him, keep the dogwith you till he's really right. So he kept him for a fortnight and that cost agood bit of money but, I'll tell you something, we got more back last Wednesdaynight."
"Well, wegave him a few schooling trials and we knew, just a few of us, that he wasright back on form, so we took him back up to Shelbourne Park again Wednesday,didn't we, me old love, and we got 5 to 1 on him and he did it easy. Sixhundred yards in 34.15 seconds, and he was five hours in the car traveling up,lying on the back seat and never taking an ounce of energy out of himself. He'sa great one to come from behind, you know, he was never one of the jadey onesthat give up if they have a bit of a shouldering on the bends." Rommellooked up with calm brown eyes at this praise.
Always one forthe quick judgment, I'd fingered my wallet and said, "When is he racingagain?"
He was racingagain, as it happened, at Waterford that night. "He'll start favorite,though," warned Michael, and so he did, which didn't prevent him fromcoming in fourth, causing me to transfer a number of those pretty green Irishpound notes with the wistful picture of Cathleen Ni Houlihan on the front to aMr. Jerry Condon, 17 Green Street, Waterford, Turf Accountant.
It was a monthsince that happened, and in my absence Rommel had been three times up toShelbourne Park again for three straight wins. Now I was firmly down as a jinxin the mind of Mrs. Joan Brennan. Despite this regrettable circumstance, thereI was after lunch, reporting back to the Brennans', and due, with Michael andJoan, to watch Rommel race at Clonmel next evening, no doubt as odds-onfavorite.
In midsummer JoanBrennan's front garden is ablaze with crimson and yellow roses, and the lawn isa soft green. Her domain obviously stopped abruptly here, though, for thequarter acre behind the house looked as the Arizona desert might appear were itlocated in County Waterford. Not many blades of grass poked above the bakedearth surface and the centerpiece was the carcass of a cow picked nearly cleanso that the white ribs showed through.
"Ireland's agreat country for casualties, you know," said Michael earnestly, explainingthis macabre sight. "Like a cow might be milked this morning and dead inthe field with grass tetany this evening. Or," he said vaguely, "shecould break a leg. And the vet's a great old pal of mine so he drops me thequick word and I'm there, dragging her aboard the hearse in five minutes."He jerked a thumb at an old wooden trailer lying on its side. "It'sbeautiful meat," he said defensively, though I hadn't said a word. "Youcould eat it yourself."
I could justimagine the precise Mrs. Brennan cutting a neat steak from a cow dead oftetany.
Michael and Iwalked through the backyard to the kennels that were as sweetly kept as thegrounds were ravaged. "When you think about it," Michael saidseriously, "I don't suppose it's possible to have a garden and greyhoundsat the same time." The sacrifice did not seem to distress him much.
Rommel's Legacylooked in good shape, I thought, when we visited him inside. He got up indignified fashion from the straw and gave us a grave, silent greeting. "Henever gets excited until I take him outside and he sees the car," Michaelsaid. "Then all he does is rear up on his hind legs and pull. He knows it'stime now for his feed but he isn't making a fuss like some dogs would. Comeinside with me till I make it up."
At the Brennans',greyhounds had not only taken over the backyard; their empire extended into thehouse as well, where Michael had turned one room into a kind of dogs'superkitchen. In the center stood a gleaming new deepfreeze which, when heopened it, proved to be crammed with hunks of red meat. "Allcondemned," said Michael with satisfaction, "but you could...."
"Eat ityourself," I said.
"You'reperfectly correct," said Michael, "but of course steak on its own isn'tenough for a dog when he's running." He brought out a pail and showed me apound of coarsely chopped steak in it. "Now that," he said, "hasbeen, what's the word, marinating since this morning early, with twotablespoonfuls of Glucodin to tenderize it."
No wonder I'dlost my money on Rommel's Legacy if his steak had to be tenderized for him."Doesn't he just gulp it down anyway?" I asked Michael.
"Listen,"he said, "I want that dog to use no energy at all except on racing. I don'twant him all worn out digesting food. And I can tell you, what I'm going to putin now on top of that is bloody explosive!"
As fussily as amaster chef, he assembled his ingredients around him. A pint and a half ofbreakfast cereal went into the pail, a glass of brown sherry (to give it a bitof a tang, said Michael), a spoonful of honey. He juggled an egg in the halfshells to separate out the yolk. "No yolk," said Michael. "Too hardto digest." The white slid into the gooey mess. "Looks prettyappetizing, eh?" he said, stirring it around and poking it under mynose.
"You couldeat it yourself," I said, lighting back the shudders.
"Andfinally," he announced, "the secret ingredient!" From a glass jaron the shelf he took four big white capsules and dropped them into thefeed.
"Don't worry,Michael," I said. "I won't say a word about this." Clearly thereason that Rommel had failed at Waterford was that he hadn't been given hisfix. So it was right, what people said about greyhound racing. And no wonder hewas such a calm, dignified dog. Stoned out of his mind, I supposed.
"It's not assecret as all that," Michael said, possibly a little surprised at myintensity. "A lot of people round here use them."
I couldn't takethat. "In Dungarvan?" I said.
"Yes," hesaid. "You get them in the chemist's."
"Give me alook at that jar," I said. The label said "Multivite. Containingvitamins A, B complex, C and D."
Michael finallysaw what was in my mind. He was shocked. "Everybody's the same," hesaid sorrowfully. "Greyhound racing has this awful image, drugs, criminalson the track and all that. It might have been so a long time ago but not now.Let me tell you," he said, breaking into audible capitals again, "thatyou'll find Company Executives of the Highest Calibre at somewhere like theWhite City. Though I'll admit that until last year in Ireland the clergycouldn't attend a track meeting without the permission of the Bishop."
"Butlisten," I said, "isn't it true that dogs get doped to runfast?"
Michael looked atme as if I were some kind of child. "It's a hell of a sight easier to makethem run slow," he said. "It's very rare to find dogs being givenstimulants like caffeine or Benzedrine. If you're a serious greyhound man andyou want to stay in the game, it's just not worth it, pushing or driving a dog.There's a great man on the tracks, Paddy Dempsey of Castleconnell, and he's woneverything including the English Derby. He says there's only one way to get adog right for a big race, and that's to see he's in great healthy shape at hisright weight and nothing will make him run better than that."
Michael does havethis tendency to bridle somewhat if you suggest there could be somethingcrooked in greyhound racing. "And there's all those wild tales," hewent on, "about owners giving their dogs big feeds of black pudding orsausage before a race if they have a favorite and they want to back anotheranimal. They can't do it because it will show up on the scales—a dog under 60pounds is only allowed to vary two pounds in weight from the previous trial.Mind, nobody wants a young dog to be doing extraordinary speeds straight off.You want him winning in, say, 31.50 seconds first off. Then you get him workingtowards 31.20, 31 seconds, 30.70 and so on. He'll be getting more experienceand getting his brain adjusted nice and he may break 30 seconds in the end.
"But blackpudding's no use. What's been known is to leave a dog out in the sun all daytill he's not feeling too good. Then he's given a pint of milk and gallopedthrough the bogs for a while. He won't go so fast after that."
He turned back tofixing Rommel's lunch. "Did you notice the way I slipped the honey in,now?"
"No, notspecially," I told him.
"I warmed thespoon so it would slide off quick. If you've got a nine till 5:30 job like meand a kennelful of greyhounds as well, you find that every secondcounts."
Joan Brennan hadcome in behind us. "He's well used to that," she said. "He's a timeand motion man down in the Dungarvan leather factory. You ought to see the wayhe has it all worked out. As he's driving home in the evening he whips his tieoff, and his cuff links, and he's wriggling out of his jacket before themotor's switched off and rolling up his sleeves as he runs in through the doorto boil milk for the pups' tea. Honest to God, he's animal crazy. We went toDublin last summer for a fortnight's holiday and the first day he moped around,the second day he took us to the zoo and the third day we were back inDungarvan. He said he'd go crazy if he had to stay in the city any longer."Oddly, though, she didn't look as if she minded too much.
"Ah, go'way," said Michael. "You were as glad to be back as I was." Heturned to me. "Don't let her be codding you. She loves the dogs as much asI do, watch her tomorrow night. If we couldn't have got a baby-sitter and she'dhad to stay home, she'd be listening for us coming back and have the front dooropen the minute she heard the car, wild to know if we won. She feeds those pupstwice in the day and she exercises the racing dogs...."
"It's alltime and motion here as well," said Mrs. B. "Do you know he's up everymorning at half-six and he's feeding and exercising the dogs and grabbing hisown breakfast. He takes 10 minutes to bolt his lunch and spends the rest of hisbreak on the dogs. Then in the evening he's up with them till midnight. We havea long lie-in on Saturday mornings—till eight—and there's Mass on Sundaymorning, but the rest of the weekend...."
"Well,there's no racing on Sundays, you see," said Michael reasonably, "so itgives you the chance to school and train the dogs and sort out the kennels and,er, look after their nails, and so on."
It was time forme to withdraw again. "Six-thirty tomorrow then," I said. "Rommel'sis the last race," Michael told me, "but we'll see the whole card. I'vegot one or two ideas we might toy with."
Mrs. Brennanlooked at me as if she thought I ought to spend the intervening period in apenitential hair shirt to make sure my baleful influence changed for thebetter. "Three times in a row, he's won," she said significantly. I gotthe message.
"I'm on yourside," I said sincerely.
"That's whatworries me," she said.
Nevertheless Iwas there next evening as they drove out of town. We made due obeisance to theMaster McGrath monument on the Clonmel Road that twisted through the rockyfoothills of the Comeragh Mountains along the tumbling, trout-filled NierRiver, Rommel quiescent in the back seat with Joan. The white cottages grewdenser, became gray streets, and we were into Clonmel. I could have found thetrack by following the cloth-capped, blue-suited men making purposefully in onedirection, turning at last into a narrow entry just below a pub announcingitself in clear primary colors as The Greyhound Inn. We parked in a meadow, andMichael went off with the dog.
The Clonmeltrack, like most other Irish ones, is small scale, functional, a little down atheel. "There's big horse racing at Limerick tonight," Joan said,"so there won't be many here." Indeed, the covered concrete steps thatwere the central feature had maybe a couple of hundred people standing on them,mostly men in caps with weathered faces, but there were a good many childrenand one hawk-faced, aristocratic woman in a tan trouser suit.
Michael came backafter leaving Rommel in the tight security of the kennels. "What have wegot for the first?" I asked him.
"Holdyourself in for the third," he said. "It's only the ijjits bet on everyrace."
But the kennelboys were parading their charges, and the No. 2 dog in the blue coat lookedgood to me. I sneaked away to the tote for a modest bet, taking my place in thequeue at the 60 new pence window behind a lot of little boys, one or two ofwhom couldn't have been seven years old. "Twice on No. 2," I whisperedprofessionally, sliding away with my tickets and hastening back to the stand."The dogs are in the traps," the rickety P. A. system wheezed. Therewas the distant rattle of the electric hare; I leaned forward as it flashed byand tripped the lock of the trap, and there was a blur of color.
The absurd thingabout greyhound racing is the actual speed at which you lose your money. Lessthan 18 seconds it takes the dogs to cover 300 yards in the short races likethis one. There are probably roulette wheels that take longer than this todecide the fate of your money. What almost makes up for the losing of it,though, is that glorious and dynamic moment when the dogs leave the trap,orange-, white-, red-, blue- and black-clad animals in a classic frieze.Presumably this consolatory effect dies away after a few occasions.
Brennan wassmiling in a somewhat self-satisfied way, I thought, when I rejoined him. Hesaid, "Joan's the same. Got to have something on every race. Same result,too."
"Where is shenow?" I asked.
"Placing herbet on the second, of course," he said. "Now give me your card." Westudied the third together. "The vet's got a dog in this one. That's LiamO'Donnell I was telling you about, the fella that gets me the dead cows. FenianVenture, that's him. In trap six. Where are you going?" he said.
"To get mymoney on, of course."
"Just wait aminute now," said Brennan. "We have to consider No. 2, Bogside Larch.Ran first on this track last week over the same distance. So what do wedo?"
"Back 'emboth?" I hazarded.
He gave me one ofhis patient looks. "No," he said, "we'll back the two of them forfirst and second place. That means...never mind," he said. "Just go upto the window and ask them for six and two reversed."
Coming back fromthe tote, I bumped into Joan. "Six and two reversed," I muttered to herout of the corner of my mouth.
"Is thatright?" she said credulously, speeding up for the window. She rejoined uson the terrace as the robot hare started its blind circuit again, and againthere was the brilliant explosion and a tide of dogs surging away around thetrack, the kennel boys racing across the inner grass to be there for them atthe finish.
We won, allright, Fenian Venture first, Bogside Larch second.
"Where areyou going now?" Michael asked. I told him I was going to collect mywinnings and put them straight on Rommel. Joan twitched distinctly.
"The bookiesaren't even quoting him yet," Michael said. "Relax and watch theracing." With his eye on me, I stayed away from the betting until, as thesun dropped and the lights came on, the runners for the last race paraded on tothe track, Rommel in the black and white stripes of No. 4. We slipped away tothe bookies but he was odds on at 4 to 6. "The tote," said Michael, andwe got our money on there. "No. 2's a grand little dog as well," saidMichael. So we linked him with Rommel in a double for a saver. Blunt Hope, hisname was.
"I'll see youlater," I told Michael. I left the stand and walked down to the rails bythe trap. I wanted to see the start at close quarters and, anyway, from mylimited experience, it was obvious that 99% of the time the first dog away wonthe race.
Greyhound racingis a very quiet sport. Nobody shouts "they're off," and there is littleapplause. And in this silent tension, Rommel came clear away as the trapsprang. "By Jesus, up and away like a cock angel," somebody near mecouldn't help exclaiming. And I was thinking, I'm a jinx no more.
Just after that,something terrible happened. Rommel was in front at the first bend, a good twolengths clear. And then, just as he reached the sprint box from which theystart the 300-yard races, he stopped dead for an instant.
"And thendidn't you see the aul' hero," Michael was saying in the Greyhound Inn halfan hour later, "the way he almost got in front again on the last straight!But there was no way through for him."
"They oughtto do something about that bloody hare," said a sympathizer from behind hisstout. "It was going slow, do you know that? The poor bloody dog stoppedbecause he was windin' himself up to spring on the hare. He thought he wasgoing to grab it."
" 'Tis thelights," said another apologist. "They had him all confused."
"Let me getyou a drink," I said to Joan Brennan. I had considered other speeches, butthis seemed the best.
"I'll have agin and tonic," she said, "and a firm promise you'll not be within 20miles of Waterford track next Saturday night."
So the lastevening I spent with Michael was driving north up the valley of the Blackwater,the road a luminous green tunnel with oak boughs locking overhead and thesunlight filtering through. We were still debating the mystery of Rommel'sweird failure. "He could have thought that the sprint box was the finishline," Michael offered. We pondered this in silence awhile. "Anyhow,the hell with it," said Michael suddenly. "We'll see how he goes atWaterford next week. He won't be racing too many times after this. He's gettingon a bit."
We left the mainroad and swung down a lane where the green gloom deepened. "What willhappen to him?" I asked, knowing the usual fate of a spent greyhound, thehole dug ready, the crack of a .22 in the morning.
"He's been agreat old hero," Michael said. "We'll let him finish his time out easyon Brett's farm. It's all been arranged."
We climbed clearof the trees to open country and pulled in at a farm gate. "This won't takelong," Michael said. "Just a few saplings they keep for me uphere." We walked through into a field high with summer grass, white cowparsley and creamy meadowsweet spilling out of the hedges. At its end, where afew apple trees grew, a dozen young greyhounds, black and white, brindled andtan, gamboled and rolled, innocent in Eden. When they saw us they came boundingup. Michael singled out a black dog with a white star on its forehead."That's the fella I'm after," he said, slipping a leash on him.
"You'll takehim now?" said a man who had followed us down from the farmhouse.
"Yes,"said Michael, "he can say goodby to it all now." He put his hand underthe dog's jaw and lifted his head. The scent of the meadowsweet was heavy inthe evening air. Little white puff balls of cloud tumbled across the sky."Take a last look at old Ireland," he said.
"Why shouldhe?" I asked.
"He's sold.Nine o'clock flight from Cork in the morning," Michael said. "A newlife at the White City for this lad."
The latestemigrant bound for the acid air of London, the pale faces shouting in alienaccents, the harsh lights of the track.
"Good luck tohim," I said.