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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 23 January, 2020
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Photos: For hundreds of people, this raceway is a slice of Americana in north county Dublin

Photographer Donal Moloney captured the trotters, the pacers, the spectators and the veterans on a sunny October day in Portmarnock.

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PHOTOGRAPHER DONAL MOLONEY uses his camera to take a glimpse into parts of Ireland that we don’t always see. Earlier this month, he travelled to the Portmarnock raceway in north county Dublin where he photographed the trotters, the pacers, the spectators, and the veterans of the Irish Harness Racing circuit. Here, he writes about what it was like. 

As the dust settles over Croke Park for 2016 and the turf undergoes its annual warm-down, lesser known sports across the country continue to jostle for position.  Sports like pony-trotting and harness-racing; a sport which graced Jones’ Road long before the clash of the hurl and the battle of the bainisteoir. So before the autumn curled up its daylight edges it was time to seek out the road less travelled and experience the thrill of the track.

It’s a sunny Sunday in October as we pull into Portmarnock raceway.  The retro burger wagon gleams in the sunlight as Chariots Of Fire plays out over the tannoy.  Men clad in race colours akin to motorcycle superheroes saunter through the paddocks with mud-splashed faces and cheeky grins.  A slice of laid-back Americana, here in north county Dublin.

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It’s not long before we are introduced to John ‘JR’ Richardson and Alan the ‘Wild Thing’ Wallace, seasoned veterans of the Irish Harness Racing (IHRA) circuit. The bikes, or sulkies, lie to one side as owners, trainers and drivers prepare their prize pacers and trotters for the day’s races.

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Meanwhile, down at the stands, spectators socialise in the sunshine, bets are placed and children climb and slide in the trackside play area.  Out on the all-weather track there is plenty of activity. Horses and drivers are warming up, the tractor loops around raking and sprinkling the surface between races before the moving gate lines up the competitors and they’re off to a running start. Everything and everyone is in slow perpetual motion until a race starts and then it’s three minutes of focused attention, cheering and shouting.

Technically, we learn, there are a few differences between the races:  Trotters follow a diagonal gait while the Pacers have perfected a lateral stride.  Apart from that it’s all about breeding, good driving and knowing your horse.  Not to mention the battalion of people who are involved behind the scenes.

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“We came here today with eleven horses, four drivers and two extended families.  A total of 13 people,” said Willie Flanagan, part of the top performing Meadow Branch Stables.  But that’s just one end of the scale, and thanks to the integration programme and apprenticeship scheme, drivers from all walks of life can get involved and get their licence.

“I wanted to retire a few years ago,” said Brenda Hudson, matriarch of the track who single-handedly owns, trains and drives her horse, “but the spirit of the people kept me going.”

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The afternoon we spent with her involved hours of warming up and warming down her horse, taking off tack, putting on blankets, massaging him and talking to him, so that by the time he hits the track late into the day he is totally at ease in the melee of stampeding gladiators.  A lot of work for one person so any help Brenda can get from upcoming youngsters like Jack Killeen is much appreciated. “It’s always great to have new participants like Jack come into our sport and they need guidance to get on track. He’s a bright lad with great enthusiasm and will do well.”

You can catch them in action again this Sunday with Special guests: Sam Maguire and the victorious Dublin Team all the way from Jones’ Road.

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More from Donal:

Take a walk around the haunting ruins of this old Irish school

Take a look at what’s inside this abandoned farmhouse

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Dónal Moloney

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