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Hurling For Cancer illustrates how important it is for racing to join forces with other sports

A host of greats from different sporting backgrounds will be involved at St Conleth’s Park this Tuesday, writes Johnny Ward.

Left to right: Cyril Farrell, Shane Foley,Tommy Walsh, Cian Boland, Jim Bolger, Davy Russell, James Dowling, Michael Duignan, Liam Griffin and Mick Beirne are all involved in Hurling for Cancer.
Left to right: Cyril Farrell, Shane Foley,Tommy Walsh, Cian Boland, Jim Bolger, Davy Russell, James Dowling, Michael Duignan, Liam Griffin and Mick Beirne are all involved in Hurling for Cancer.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WHAT PERCENTAGE OF us, were we compelled as a 15-year-old to take a one-week course on how to ride horses, would be hooked for eternity?

It is to our detriment that we do not try more pursuits: there can be little so exhilarating as riding horseback at 45 miles per hour, or even 40 or even 35.

The vast majority can only speculate. Racing takes a hold on horsemen and horsewomen, such that very many of them have little else to talk about or consume them.

Racing is exceptionally self-absorbed as a sporting bubble; it is remarkable how uninterested many jockeys and trainers are, for example, in field sports. Jim Bolger is an exception.

A self-made man who came from a farming background in County Wexford, his father used horses to share the workload at home, hurling an abiding passion since young Jim was weaned.

Bolger has long been a source of fascination, not universally popular — and nobody should aspire to be universally popular. His wit is bone dry, once responding to a throwaway suggestion I might ghost-write his autobiography by telling me I was “number 13 on the list”.

Bolger should be a wealthy man at this later stage of the chapters. He who once sold a horse to Colonel Gaddafi may feel obliged to give a little back but, whatever his motivations, his Hurling For Cancer charity match illustrates how important it is for racing to venture out and join forces with other members of the sporting stable.

Hurling for Cancer is back on Tuesday for another year, the line-ups going head-to-head in the name of Irish Cancer Research drawn from the well of great names in Irish sport.

This is the seventh year in a row that Bolger has helped organise, aided by another hurling nut, Davy Russell. The seventh year has particular resonance.

One of the greatest of all time, Pat Smullen, announced his retirement on medical advice in May — this fully 14 months after the docs told him he had pancreatic cancer. Only Smullen would have left it so long: that dogged persistence of a winner.

Smullen was impressive as a rider but off the charts since diagnosed, treating self-pity as an option that did not exist, complaint as a waste of a precious breath. Like Colm Murray, who lost his battle with the grotesquely horrific Motor Neuron Disease, Smullen is fighting a war in the knowledge that one day a cure can be found; and victims are well-placed to play their part on that rocky road to the hope of that promised land.

Smullen may or may not be much of a hurler but Lee Chin, Ollie Canning, and Cian Boland can reasonably suggest that they can hurl if the need arises. They will be in Newbridge Tuesday, as will former soccer players, Niall Quinn and Stephen Hunt; Wexford All Star Ursula Jacob; and GAA pundits, John Mullane and Michael Duignan.

Pat Smullen Pat Smullen. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Throwing in the sliotar is a task left to Smullen and AP McCoy, who were only kids when their respective counties clashed in one of the most heartwarming Irish sporting events ever in 1989, Antrim beating Offaly to reach an All-Ireland final.

Antrim beat Offaly again in the Joe McDonagh Cup this summer, by which time the kids had become retired riders of legend.

Bolger’s side will be managed by Liam Griffin, while Brian Cody — who could tell a thing or two about being utterly obsessed by one sport only — will be in charge of Russell’s side.

Umpires at the event will be Irish rugby player Tadgh Furlong; GAA personalities, Colm O’Rourke and Michael Lyster; Ted Walsh and Willie Mullins; and Rich Ricci. Seemingly when it comes to Hurling for Cancer, you cannot have enough umpires.

The figures are staggering. Last year almost 6,000 people turned up to see the game. Hurling for Cancer Research has raised €830,000 for the Society’s vital cancer research projects since it began in 2012. And counting.

There is surely no finer example of sporting greats coming together for something so powerful as to render mere words futile tools, but it is a night of unique fun and banter into the bargain. We will all ultimately cede to the next world — but Tuesday night will mean that the race to cure cancer, over 100 types of which can affect humans, is just that bit shorter.

For Smullen, no race will have meant so much.

County Kildare may not be a hurling stronghold but this is the home of Irish racing and its iconic racetrack begins its own latest chapter this evening, Pat Keogh’s first meet as CEO. We wish him and the track all the best, Know It All (5/1 with Betway) appealing in the 6.15, the Loder Irish EBF Fillies Race.

Cracking Name, meanwhile, loves Tipperary so much that he may snare the Larry Lyons Birthday Celebration Handicap at 4.15 Sunday.

Tipperary, of course, is a hurling stronghold. Bolger is probably still gutted that his beloved Model County are not facing the Premier in the All-Ireland final later this month — but there will be more hurling matches, more victories.

Horsemen pass by.

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