FLIPPER, A MARVELLOUS MISTAKE

It wouldn’t matter when I was asked about my favourite memory in greyhound racing, the wish will always be that the best is ahead of me.

If it’s not however, there is one greyhound among many who gave me memories to last my lifetime for a host of reasons and though there is very few reading this who will ever even have come across his name, Mackeys Mistake is a legend to many as a dog who contested a short career at a modest level while oblivious to the friendships which formed around him, the craic that just his existence sparked, and, a gamble that’s still recalled by yours truly when given an ear to bend over a few sociables!

I was just turned 30 years of age and with a rearing around greyhounds, I had begun to take charge of the family kennels belonging to my grandparents. A few dogs keeping me busy, some my own and some for family but I would get asked to take on board another young dog while in for a pint at my local in Nenagh town.

Now, the craic over this dog had started long before I was asked to take him in. Our publican in said establishment was, to say the least, a character! I’ll call him by his nickname, Iggy, and he was only a couple of years older than myself. He had inherited the family pub from his dad, who I used to work for behind the bar during a time where Iggy was on his travels abroad.

On the evening where I first learned of the existence of Mackeys Mistake, there had been some banter over a sum of money which was owed by Iggy to his good friend Eoin, who was sat at the counter when I arrived in. The money was slow in coming and it’s not as if Iggy lacked the means to honour the debt but if you can imagine a rouge-like character who would get a kick out of tormenting his creditor? That was Iggy!

The pub itself was a sporting pub with Iggy’s own dad having been involved in horse ownership and a clientele whose conversations were dominated by a myriad of sporting interests. With a bookies close by, you’ll get a sense of the overall atmosphere and going back through the years, it was traditionally the greyhound pub in Nenagh.

Iggy’s dad Tom had also dabbled in greyhound ownership and at the time in question, was not long passed from this world. Unknown by Iggy, Tom had been involved with another local character, the great John “Mackey” McKenna of the famed Borrisokane greyhound dynasty. The four time All-Ireland winning hurler with Tipperary had been handling a bitch which Tom part owned and at the time this story commences, had not long since informed Iggy that there was a pup due to him from a litter that Boros Dream had whelped.

So, back to my pint and my first knowledge of this pup. I had barely wet my throat while still greeting the regulars when Eoin, who was owed the few bob, asked “will you train a dog for me?”. Eoin was a life-long friend of Iggy’s and though I couldn’t claim him as a close friend at that time, he was a hugely respected personality within our wider circle.

Prior to his request to train a dog, the exchange over the money owed had ended with Eoin accepting this pup of Mackey’s in respect of the debt. Iggy hadn’t been involved in greyhounds up to this point and of course saw this exchange as a victory!

Mix-up

So, between the pair of them, Iggy and Eoin made arrangements to go and collect the pup from Mackey. As I recall, it was a Friday evening and they arrived on to me with a pup. He was to be 13 months old but on initial inspection, he looked on the small side to me and I wasn’t over enthusiastic, to say the least.

“Are ye sure ye have the right pup?” I asked. For luck, they had the registration paper and sure enough, it didn’t match the earmark. So, Mackey had given them the wrong pup. Keen to get the mix-up resolved as quickly as possible, we all packed into the van and headed straight back for Mackey’s kennels.

On arrival, there was no sign of Mackey. The lads had only been there an hour before however and knowing where the younger crew of dogs were, we had a check around to see if we could find the dog with the earmark to match our registration form. We duly located him and, he was much more to our liking. A fine frame of a dog with an athletic look to him and as Iggy would describe in subsequent stories of this mix-up, “you’d want to see the big feed inside with this fella when Mackey thought he was his!” Well, as we were soon to find out, Mackey did think he was his!

What we did next, I’ll admit, was a bit questionable. But, as we couldn’t locate Mackey, we swapped the wrong pup for the right pup and relocated him to my place. This was only sixteen years ago but I’m damned if I can recall the mobile phone situation at the time. We definitely didn’t have a number for Mackey anyway, but, boy god did he get in touch with Iggy the following morning.

A Saturday, Iggy had no sooner opened the doors of the pub when he was confronted by an irate Mackey having realised that the dog he thought was his, was gone! Accosting a greyhound novice as Iggy was, the matter was adjourned to my place as Mackey whisked Iggy away from the pub in determined manner.

Arriving to mine Mackey declares, “Cooney, you robbed me feckin dog!” Now, being accused of such an act by a GAA legend from possibly the most revered greyhound family in the country, was quite unnerving. But my grandfather reared me bould and I stood me ground. We had it out and thank heaven for the registration paper for Mackey gradually came around to the realisation that he had in fact made a mistake……….the naming of the pup was obvious!

Flipper gets his own back!

So, as I’d described, Mackeys Mistake was a well-made dog, in frame at least. There was one aspect to his make-up however that I wasn’t too enamoured with and that was his flat feet! His toes did not form that tight looking, almost symmetrical fist-like shape, they were quite flat. Now, describing this feature to Eoin at the bar one evening, with Iggy in company, the latter’s roguery kicked into full gear.

Iggy would only love to have caught us all out by landing us with a right dud. Not that he would wish us any ill-will, but rather to say that he got out of the original debt on the winning side. Anyway, whatever way I was talking to Eoin about the dogs feet, Iggy took away from it that the dog had webbed feet, as if that was a unique feature……….and proceeded to nickname the dog Flipper, through fits of laughter. Cue all the dolphin jokes or, “if it rains all day he’ll be a certainty!”

Anyhow, I drove on and prepared Flipper for his schooling through which he displayed intermittent bouts of promise and while we didn’t have a Derby dog on our hands, I thought there could at least be a race or two to be won with him. Modest qualification trials preceded his first race where not much was expected and his first few efforts over 525 yards yielded little.

                                                               “ivy up a wall”

Down the field in those early attempts, the slagging in the pub was in overdrive, with Iggy’s impish laugh revelling in the early career woes of our Flipper. “I caught ye rotten with that one” he’d chuckle, telling Eoin, “sure that Cooney wouldn’t train ivy up a wall! Is there any swimming races for him?”

There wasn’t much we could say back to him, but it was all taken in good heart and Iggy knew who he was dealing with for Eoin could take a joke as a calm personality. I’ll point out at this stage that Eoin was and is, a trainer’s dream. Never a query as to what’s going on or why he did or didn’t perform. All he’d ever say is “you’re training him, if you’re doing your best, that’ll do!”

Also, within our sports and punting orientated local, Eoin was not one to be running up and down to the bookies for every second race. He was a more calculated punter. If he didn’t adamantly fancy something, there was no bet. When he did however, he was never afraid to have a cut. We all knew this and as punters of greater frequency, kind of admired him for his restraint.

It was never a secret between us that if ever a chance presented to have a cut at Flipper, it was to be fervently pursued and with that at the back of my mind, I implored Eoin to keep faith with myself and Flipper, despite not displaying any obvious signs of impending improvement in his career start.

What Flipper had shown however, was a decent dash of early pace but his prowess from traps was not sufficient to fully utilise it. He was walking out, showing pace to the bend while invariably arriving at the corner at the perfect time to get clattered while turning.

To complicate things, he was picking up niggles with practically every outing. So, a change of course and I started to eye a sprint race for him. Not that his breaking would fill you with confidence for that game either but at least he’d have the long run to the bend to show the early pace that I believed he had.

He was well graded following his poor start at 525 and with plenty of T.L.C ahead of a prep trial, I got a pleasant surprise when he went close to the 18 second mark for the 330 yards at our home track in Thurles. Luckily, I managed to get him on the card before he went out of his time because if I had been forced to give him an official trial, all hopes for a gamble were out the window.

                                                     “what if he doesn’t break?”

So, things were in place for a chat with Eoin about maybe getting into profit for this venture as Flipper was about to race at somewhere around a level that would equate to S8. Still, and even knowing Flipper was in hopping form, this was a daunting prospect for me. I had rattled-off a similar type of gamble not all that long before but that was with a dog of our own. If that had gone astray, I had only family to answer to. This time it felt more like I was putting my head on the chopping block. I had never trained a dog for anyone else before, let alone sanctioned them to lump on!

It had been a few weeks since I was in touch with Eoin but made contact to tell him the dog would be running on the coming Tuesday. “Ah good”, says he, “Will he win?”

I says, “if he breaks he’ll win.”

“Ok” he replied, “and what if he doesn’t break?”

“He’ll probably still win” says I.

“That’s the stuff” says Eoin. “Will I get €…. on him?”

He mentioned a number and I nearly swallowed me tongue! I knew he wasn’t joking either. It was a substantial bet and I outlined that he’d have to spread it out among the books but he should get a fair chunk on.

This was 2005, only fifteen years ago but a very different time in greyhound racing. It was the month of May with the weather warming up. Our Tuesday meetings in Thurles had very decent crowds and on the night in question, we had either 4 or 5 bookies present.

                                                               “tis idle if he doesn’t win”

So, the job was on! Eoin gathered his trusted few, filled the car while no doubt fine tuning the punting strategy. As far as I was concerned, they had the easy job, I had to get Flipper to traps ready to do something he had never done before, put his head in front in a race!

Now usually when it comes to these things, I always ascertain that you never know enough and only knowing your own part of things can be very dangerous. I always maintain that the key to any punt on your own dog, is knowing the opposition. I can’t however say that I extensively knew all rivals on this particular night but I did get a small, much needed confidence boost on the way to traps.

One or two of Eoin’s crew must have been struggling to contain the “info” while awaiting the race because my good friend and true sporting gentleman Tommy Ryan says to me on parade, “yer fancying him tonight Paul?!” The time for secrecy had well passed by now and I duly acknowledged that we did indeed fancy him.

“If he comes away with them at all Tommy, tis idle if he doesn’t win” I stated.

Tommy, with a full brother of Flipper on the end of his collar and lead replies, “well this fellow won’t be bothering you anyway!”

I’m sure we were last of the parade to stroll across to the sprint box as I was keeping one eye on the bookies to see if the lads were moving early. I think he was initially chalked up at 3/1 and that’s where the boys started. That punting aspect, I only got to hear about after of course but it was as you would expect. Scrambling to get the last of it on as the bell rings and as Eoin told me after, his last exchange was right as traps were opening and he didn’t actually see the start of the race as I recall.

He was better off that he didn’t see it! Flipper was in Trap 5 and even before the race, I couldn’t tell you if that would suit him. I was just hoping that he would break any way right at all and get himself room to gallop…..but no!

“Oh jaysus” says Tommy Ryan beside me. They were out of the boxes and Flipper was a full length behind the fifth-place dog, and, the fifth-place dog didn’t break well! My stomach was in me socks. As you’ll know, it all happens very fast after that but although looking up his backside on the run to the bend, I could tell he was doing a bit of running. I couldn’t see how much ground he was making but maybe not all was lost, I desperately hoped.

                                                            “ah jaysus the five dog!”

Eoin’s recollection of this same part of this race had him as much in the dark as me for he had only just secured his last bet when turning around he saw a line of dogs, but no Flipper. The field was strung out you see and from Trap 5, Flipper was shielded from view on the outside of most of them. With his eyes scanning for a sight of his investment, Eoin’s aspirations got a lift when the bookie, who was perched at a height behind him shrieked “ah jaysus the five dog!”

Focused on the first turn with heightened hope, Eoin recalled seeing a first glimpse of the orange jacket when somehow emerging in front at the bend, on the rails! That was also the first time I knew he was in front because he had disappeared into a blur of speeding canines on me, the further they went to the corner.

Once he turned in the lead, that was that and my stomach returned to position. To this day I have never experienced such a vast contrast in emotion within such a short period of time as I did in the 6 or 7 seconds from his horrible break to when he settled the race at the opening bend.

Looking back, I don’t mind saying that I took pride in my own efforts to deliver Flipper in prime order, excepting the breaking of course, to deliver what was quite an impressive victory. The opposition on this occasion were clearly beatable but as his overall career showed, that was rarely the case. He posted a smart 19.63 for the 360-yard distance that night which would equate to an S2 effort, not bad given that he walked out of traps.

Selfishly, it vindicated my efforts in his preparation and with much more vanity, it made me look like I knew what I was doing in front of Eoin, his crew, the locals in the pub and of course Iggy, who was made to swallow humble pie, an aspect which was a viable candidate for highlight of the entire venture!

I didn’t know it at the time of the race but adding further to the night, the great Mackey McKenna was present and with a punting venture like this being right up his street, in addition to having bred Flipper, there was no hint of animosity over his initial “mistake” while thoroughly delighted for all involved.

Flipper’s friendships

Flipper continued to have a lightly raced career through persistent niggling injuries following that first victory and before his retirement, actually only won one more race. But we only backed him once more!!

However, that night remains one of my greatest memories in racing even apart from the gamble. It’s special because it punctuated Flipper’s facilitation of one of the most enjoyable ventures I’ve ever had in the sport, which reached far beyond that race win.

There are novels to be written about our local pub where it all began which is regrettably not in business anymore. Our publican of the day, Iggy, was a most unique personality and I don’t think I’ll come across a character that I could harbour such a grá for while at the same time awaiting our next big argument which could spark at any moment.

You see I worked a while for him soon after this period, just as I had worked for his dad. We became very close and having ultimately lost out in the exchange with Flipper, he bought a pup to be trained by yours truly soon after.

Iggy is gone from us now and I couldn’t begin to describe the void that was left after him for the people in this story, along with so many others. He did have further involvement in greyhounds in his final years with no little success on the coursing field with more friends of his dad’s vintage. There’s a few stories to be told from those exploits too!

You see every dog has their own story, they don’t have to be classic winners to be legends!

They are unique but when shared, dogs like Flipper can make an impact far outside the greyhound track. He trusted me and our friendship while depending on me to care for him. He trusted me to do my best for him and he returned the trust on the night of the gamble. Not by winning the race, but by doing his best.

In truth, he returned the trust every day because that’s what greyhounds do. I have no need to preach to the converted about their amiable attributes but having a story like Flipper’s is what makes memories. In the case of his owner Eoin and I, Flipper cemented a friendship for life with one of the most honourable and trustworthy men that anyone could wish to know. Telling his story sparks memories of where it all began with Iggy in the pub and helps us to remember our lost friend and his banter with great fondness. There’s a reassuring warmth to memories like these.

He gave us a shared story to tell that will never grow old in our company and will be repeated incessantly at any opportunity. As far as we’re concerned, Flipper was the best mistake that Mackey ever made!

 

Paul Cooney.