Donn's Articles » Patsy Byrne

Patsy Byrne

If you are into greyhounds, you go to Powerstown Park in Clonmel. That’s just what you do. The same way as if you are into rugby you go to Lansdowne Road, or if you are into hurling you go to Croke Park. It’s a given.

Patsy Byrne has been into greyhounds all is life. Clonmel week has not gone ahead without him for the best part of a quarter of a century now. It’s a bit like Cheltenham for racing folk, he tells you. It is the first entry that you make in your new diary every year.

Byrne can look back on a good day today. One of his dogs, Honest Opinion, has reached the last eight of the Derby on the coursing field. Across the water, one of his horses, Mad Maurice, trained by Barney Curley and ridden by Jamie Spencer, won a banded stakes race on the all-weather at Southwell. That’s Patsy Byrne for you. One eye on the racecourse, one eye on the coursing field.

“My family were all doggy people,” he says as he relaxes now in the Horse and Jockey hotel, which boasts such a large foyer that you could run a short course from one end to the other if you could find two dogs. “My uncles were all involved in dogs. All the family were involved. I grew up surrounded by dogs. I liked the sport and I liked the people. It’s a great game like that with great people.”

Byrne hails from Duagh, deep doggy country in Co Kerry, just three miles from the Limerick border. But don’t suggest that he is anything other than a Kerryman to the marrow. To do so would be your first strike. Two more of those and you’re out.

Dogs were a way of life in Duagh. You tried to buy a good one and you tried to breed a good one. You can happen upon a good broodbitch, Patsy tells you but, to be honest, it is a bit of a lottery. All greyhounds are so well bred these days that you are a lot more at the mercy of fortune than you used to be.

Byrne put the dogs to one side in the late 1960s, trained as a carpenter and went to London. Needs must; dogs he could do later. It was a time of transition in the construction industry in England. Until then, people generally worked for the big companies, the McAlpines and the Laings of the world. At the end of the 1960s, however, more people were setting up as sub-contractors. That was the route that Patsy and his brother Johnny explored.

Together in 1969 they set up the Byrne Group Plc. Today, the group boasts an annual turnover of £130 million and employs over 900 people, their clients including Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC, Lords and the All England Lawn Tennis Association (Wimbledon). The have also worked on Twickenham, the Royal Opera House, the Tower of London and the Millennium Dome, and many many more. As CVs in the construction industry go, they don’t get much more impressive. But don’t ask Patsy which of the brothers is older. Johnny has at least four years on him. Strike two.

“There wasn’t really one event that enabled the business to make a quantum leap,” says Patsy thoughtfully. “It just happened gradually. It was a tough business. Still is. There have been several booms and several depressions. The late 1980s to the early 1990s was a particularly bad time, but we managed to get through it.”

And he went back to dogs. He took out a trainer’s licence in Britain and trained for seven or eight years in Hooley in Surrey, with no small amount of help from Tralee man Pa Fitzgerald.

“I held the licence, but it was Pa who did the training,” laughs Byrne. “He came over from Tralee. Our objective was to win stakes races and to land the odd bet. It is just as difficult to land a bet in England as it is in Ireland, but we didn’t do too badly.”

In 1991 they won the English Derby with Ballinderry Ash, owned by Tommy Stack’s late sister Helen Roche. The same year they won the Scottish Derby with Phantom Flash. Byrne also owned a half-share, with the late Mick Gleeson, in the 2001 Irish Derby winner Cool Performance. That’s as good as it gets in the greyhound world.

And Byrne has been a familiar sight in the horse racing world for the last 20 years or so. If he is not breeding them, he is either owning them or sponsoring the races in which they are running. He got involved in breeding about seven or eight years ago. He has shares in four or five mares – including Tadkiyra, dam of Damson – with fellow Kerryman Denis Brosnan at his Croom House Stud. He is involved in a couple of foal syndicates, and he has several horses in training on the flat, but National Hunt is where his heart is.

You get the feeling that, if Tolpuddle were to go and win at Cheltenham in March, his 2004 Irish Lincoln success and his two listed race wins would pale into insignificance by comparison. When Maelkar carried Byrne’s colours to finish second to Henry Mann in the Coral Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1990, he could have been forgiven for thinking that a Festival win was not too far away. Alas, that’s as close as he has come to date. But don’t bet against him achieving that particular goal in the near future.

“Tolpuddle was a decent horse on the flat,” says the owner, “and I think he could make up into a very nice hurdler. We were happy with his win on his hurdling debut at Cork two weeks ago. He goes at Punchestown on Sunday for our own race. We’ll think about the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after that.”

Patsy Byrne’s attitude to race sponsorship is purely philanthropic. The commercial benefit is minimal. You will see the Byrne name in Britain at Cheltenham (Cleeve Hurdle), Kempton (Heron Stakes) and Ascot when it re-opens, and, in Ireland, at Punchestown, Tralee and Listowel. It’s good to be associated with these tracks, he tells you, and it’s nice to help them out.

Gallant Approach and Windsor Boy run in the company’s blue and white colours, but Avalon, like Tolpuddle, carries Byrne’s own familiar colours – dark blue, pink cross of lorraine, pink cap. Third in the Great Voltigeur at York last year, he is one of the classiest recruits to the winter game this season. He was a little disappointing at Ludlow on his jumping bow, but Byrne is not despondent.

“I was happy enough with his first run,” he says philosophically, “as he wasn’t showing Jonjo a lot at home. When I bought him, I was hoping that he’d be a Triumph Hurdle horse this year, but he wasn’t showing us enough to merit an entry. He obviously has ability though, and I’m hoping that we can get him to show it.”

Patsy Byrne will be at Punchestown tomorrow. He couldn’t miss the Byrne Group Plc Novice Hurdle and the Byrne Group Plc Tied Cottage Chase. After that it’s off to Dubai to see Cristoforo fly the Byrne flag at the Dubai Racing Carnival. He could do very well, but don’t ask Byrne if he would prefer Tolpuddle to win at Punchestown or Cristoforo to win in Dubai.

That’s strike three.

© The Irish Field, 3rd February 2006