Think of the name Dessie Scahill and one immediately thinks of racing, commentating and, of course, a famous mare that won the Gold Cup in 1986.
But despite what some may believe there is a lot more to the legendary commentator, who closed off his ‘mike’ for the last time two years ago, come next month.
While he retains his interest in the racing game, Dessie Scahill, these days has more time for two other passions that have been part of his life for nearly as many years as has the Curragh, Punchestown, Cheltenham, Epsom, and all the other top racing venues, at home and abroad.
Presently his time is being consumed by golf, he being the present captain at Cill Dara Golf Club , in this, the club’s centenary year, and while many of the lavish plans and celebrations that had been laid out for 2000 have bitten the dust (the club’s centenary Pro-Am should have taken place on Friday last) still with things beginning to get back to normal, as Dessie says himself, we are healthy and all going well will have a good four or five months of golf before the turn of the year.
Incredible as it may seem Dessie Scahill did not hit his very first golf ball until he was the ripe old age of 46 when playing 9 holes in the Gap of Dunloe.
“I immediately got the ‘bug’ and within a week I had bought a set of club” he told us when we chatted last week.
“It would often drive me mad when heading to a race meeting and a few lads with me would start talking about golf, literally drive me mad, until that day I played in Dunloe and ever since I got to love the game.
“Then last year Cill Dara captain Nicky Brennan asked me to become his Vice Captain, saying to me ‘sure you have loads of time on your hands now’ I agreed and am now six months into my year.”
A North County Dublin man there was never any connection between the Scahill family and racing, apart that is “from going up to the bookies every day at lunch time when in school.”
Dessie left Swords Secondary School, just three months before he was due to sit his Leaving Cert, taking up an apprenticeship with Charlie Weld (Dermot’s dad), that was back in 1964; “did four years there; moved on for a year with Paddy Jnr (Prendergast) before taking up a travelling job with Mick O’Toole, all of course on the Curragh.
“You would meet many characters in the racing game back then, some stand out a mile ahead of others and Mick O’Toole stood out ahead of them all. “He was a character if there ever was one.”
Characters, said Dessie, have all but gone out of racing and have more or less once ‘the pictures’ arrived; ‘the pictures‘'’ being live television from the likes of At The Races.
“From that time many felt they could get much more out of their day training horses, staying at home watching the races, then going back out into the yard to be with the horses, a lot better than travelling up an down to the likes of Killarney or Galway; that seems to be the case once live television came our way.”
So where did the commentating come from?
“Back in the day” Dessie explains, “most people had a bit of a party piece, a song, a few jokes, maybe play an instrument, or whatever, but I use to re-do a race commentary I had heard (and rehearsed), let it be a Gold Cup or another big race and that then became my party piece.”
During the summer when we were at festival meetings around the country, every evening there would be a gathering that would inevitably end up with a bit of a sing-sing, lots of slagging, a bit of craic, and my piece would always be a com-
mentary, and it became popular at various functions.”
Then an opportunity arose in RTÉ when the great Michael O’Hehir became manager of Leopardstown Racecourse, he would not commentate there and his son Tony, asked me one day would I be interested in having a go, I was given an audition before racing went live one day on At The Races and the following week received a letter asking me to commentate on the Leopardstown Chase.
With Michael O’Hehir on the TV I got chances to do the radio but then Michael came back to radio and that was a big blow for me as I was pushed back down the ladder.
Dessie explains that RTÉ then branched out a little and changed the format of their racing coverage and he was asked to give betting news from The Ring and the full results after each race, “something I absolutely hated, absolutely hated it, but had to stick with it to keep my foot in the door sort of speak.”
Then Tony O’Heir, who commentated as well as being racing correspondent with the Racing Post,went full time with the paper and he asked Dessie if he would be interested in taking on the role, “something I jumped at.”
So from that point on and for the next 30 years plus Dessie Scahill was employed by AIR (Association of Irish Racecourses) to commentate for a total of 210 days a year, an enjoyble job but one that entailed a lot of travelling.
But it was the travelling that really caught up with me, he explains.
“You could be in Killarney one week for three or four days; the following week maybe in Galway for the entire week; Listowel the next and then you would be in Dundalk every Friday night for something like 35 meetings a year; you could be Wexford today, Cork tomorrow, a lot of travelling and then the Sunday racing came along so it was the travelling that probably wore me down.
“I probably keep going longer than most, a lot of people would have given up earlier (maybe I should have as well) but situations mean you have to do what you have to do, I just wanted to get the mortgage paid, finish up and just walk away and that is what I did when I had all that done.
“There were some great characters at that time and unlike today, they use to all go; characters such as Micko (Toole), Paddy Norris, Paddy Kearns, they would be all at the festival meetings, meet them in the hotels at night; sing songs; all sorts of carry-on but that all faded away; different generation came along and that more or less coincided with the pictures (live television) and in many ways ‘the pictures’ took a lot of characters away from going racing.”
Back when Dessie began ‘calling’ races it was, no doubt, very different from today, back then there were, as he explains, no monitors, no high definition screens, race cards printed in black and white, no colour, so very different indeed.
“In truth you became very familiar with most of the owners colours; I did not really do any great home-
work as such, I would just go to the races, would have had a look at them the night before just to see how big the fields were, but I never did actual preparation.
“But don't forget you did not have any real information and then when the Racing Post came out it was a huge help; you could see all the colours on the card; before that you would be lucky to get the runners in the Irish Press or Irish Independent but race by race, I would watch the jockeys come out, check there were no changes; would watch them going down to the start, call them out one behind the other as if the race was on and then in flat races call them as they would load up.
“They weren’t as strict at the scales back then as they are nowadays; fines are imposed today if you have wrong colours; so you had to be on your toes , a fella could go down to the start with anything on, it was a lot looser then, but things over the last 20-25 years have tightened up considerably.”
As we said at the start, mention the name Dessie Scahill and one of the first things that immediately comes to mind is 1986, the Gold Cup and that great mare Dawn Run.
“I will probably always be remembered for that race but it was that sort of race, you know, an Irish winner of the Gold Cup, rare apart from Arkle, we had a lot of barren spells at Cheltenham; there was a couple of years we only had a winner in Galmoy, now it is nearly a challenge between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins; you wonder now at times when the lads (Gordon and Willie in particular) go over to England if there are any horses at all over there.”
And what do you put down to the change of fortune over recent season where now Irish horses seem to dominate a lot of the big meetings across the pond, both on the flat and jumps?
“It is actually hard to pin-point, I suppose in years gone by if there as a good horse here it would inevitably be bought by a wealthy English owner, that does not happen any more, the prize money here is so good and in fact many of the English owners now send their horses over here to be trained, so a complete turn-around.”
The numbers attending race meetings in Ireland have been falling off big time over the last number of years is that a big worry?
“Absolutely, but again live TV, a mobile at your side, many punters have accounts with the bookies; just yesterday I was at home watching racing from Roscommon and Fairyhouse in the comfort of my sitting room and while we have no choice at the minute, a lot of racing over the last ten years have been held with very few in attendance.
“The fact that race courses are getting good money for the pictures (TV) that is what is keeping many tracks alive but if anything ever happens with the High Street bookmakers and the picture are not required for them (bookmakers) then a lot of tracks would find themselves in big trouble, even now some will do well to survive.”
While Dessie does not go racing anything like he did he still goes to the odd meeting in the Curragh, Leopards-
town or Naas “just to meet up with a few lads I worked with but I find after four or five races I have had enough and am looking for the exit, I'm not one for just hanging around for the sake of it and while I would still have a bet (although I have not had one since Cheltenham) I will let things settled down for another while, keep an eye on the racing, maybe see something that finishes a good second that might catch my eye and keep tabs on that, but overall not that pushed really, especially with the golf these days.”
One of the big plusses while away at summer racing festivals was the fact that Dessie got the chance to play golf all over the country, something he says he really enjoyed.
“I played in some brilliant courses, played with Rory McIlroy at the JP (McManus) Pro-Am and that was really nice.”
Dessie may have only taken up golf when he was in his mid-forties but he is a fair accomplished player these days. Playing off 11 he has won everything that could be won at his club, except that is the captain’s prize. Incredibly he has been runner-up on no less than five occasions and as he says himself “while I can't win it this year the chances are I will bring in the best score.”
One of the proudest days he experienced in golf was being part of the Cill Dara team that won the Jimmy Bruen All-Ireland competition back in 2016. “That was some achievement for a 9-hole club, it was brilliant, we won it in Carton House, great occasion, great memories.”
Dessie's other great passion is Manchester United and is a personal friend of former boss Alex Ferguson at this stage.
Just mention the word ‘United’ and you can immediately detect the enthusiasm and the affection he has for the club.
“I have had a great run with United for many years but of course it had to come to an end when Alex retired but I t think they are gradually just getting back there. I think they are about three players short; hopefully getting back into contention next year; still a bit behind Liverpool and Man City but I feel if we can sign about three players — and get rid of a few others — we could at least be competitive in the top four come next season.
“I used to go over to Old Trafford a lot, maybe not as much now but I will be back, I was just talking to Alex last week, he has been cocooning for all of six weeks, never left the house and while he was invited to the Sheffield United game last week, decided to stay put and watch it on the telly.
“When you are cocooning your have to look after things and yourself in particular and I think a lot of people are mindful of that.
“I think people will be slow to go back to certain things such as games, shops, restaurants, hotels and pubs; it could take 12 months I belive before people will finally begin to fully get back to normal, what ever that is.
“The main thing is we are safe, healthy, back golfing and I am really looking forward to the rest of the year as captain and in particular my Captain's Prize Day at Cill Dara.”