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24 May 2022

INTERVIEW: Niall Cronin recalls riding a winner at Punchestown and his life in racing

INTERVIEW: Niall Cronin recalls riding a winner at Punchestown and his life in racing

Niall Cronin on Prespectorous, winners of the 2010 Punchestown Charity Race

Tommy Callaghan chats with Naas native Niall Cronin, former racing correspondent, winning charity race jockey, GAA manager and now Communications Manager IHRB

My earliest memories were probably actually going out to Punchestown before really knowing, or realising, what was going on — the words of Niall Cronin, Naas native, former Racing Correspondent with The Herald, winning jockey, on the double, of the famous Charity Race, and now, IHRB Communications Manager.

The Cronins are a well known and popular Kildare family steeped in GAA and no strangers to the world of racing as Niall explains.

“My nanny, Lizzy Fennessy, had a stall, back in the day, at the Festival selling apples, oranges, chocolate and the like; while grand-dad, Jack, would have minded the bikes, the only means of transport for a lot of people who either walked out or rode their bike to the races in that time.”

Niall recalls a story of another legend around Naas, the late Paddy Byrne, who often recalled that “he (Paddy) left his bike with Jack to mind, and depending on how many winners he had on the day, he would 'look after him' and if he had no winners would tell Jack he would see him tomorrow. However, it was some years afterwards that Paddy realised that grand-dad was getting paid by Punchestown, so he (Paddy) did not have to pay him at all, so he was actually getting paid on the double.”

Punchestown, for any Naas person, says Niall, is an important part of their lives, or should be, that extra few quid my grand-dad was getting back then was going back into the economy regardless, but even these days you see reports of the millions that Punchestown generates for the local economy, most businesses get something out of it and with the way things have been over the past two years or so, this year it will be thriving again.

“It is an opportunity to see the best of the best, horse-wise but that was the way it always was, an opportunity to see the likes of Ruby, Geraghty, McCoy all in their prime and people a bit older would remember the greats of their time, the Frank Berry's and the Charlie Swan's of this world.

PICTURED: Niall Cronin, manager Kildare minor footballers, keeping a close watch as his players record a fine win over Longford

At the end of the day, adds Niall, you look at Cheltenham, the buzz of it all and the many, many Irish winners we have been having in recent times; 90 per cent of them will be back in Punchestown and maybe even more than that as it is the end of the national hunt season and  trainers and owners might take on horses in other instances they might have tried to avoid but being the end of the season, the huge money at stake, could decide it is worth a chance.

 “For instance, Constitution Hill might take on Honeysuckle, so it is massive, absolutely massive and I think they have found the perfect balance with the fifth day (Saturday) drawing an attendance in excess of 50,000.”

There have been so many great days, adds Niall, “ I remember the year Sprinter Sacre came over, he was a horse with just a real presence and when he arrived off the ferry and came down to Punchestown there was a crowd there just to get a glimpse of him on the Sunday, incredible, or what.”

CHARITY RACE

Niall, of course is heavily involved in the GAA scene with his club, Naas, where he enjoyed some great success at minor and U21 level as manager while he also managed the county town team to win the  Leinster Leader Cup in 2019. He is  presently manager of the county minor football team, but apart from that he also got involved in riding horses and enjoyed great success, winning the prestigious Charity Race on two occasions, no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination.

“It was 2009 when I rode in the race for the first time finishing fourth, but I got the buzz and then I was lucky enough to win it in 2010 and again in 2011 but what James Nolan (chief organisers of the charity race) has done is incredible and it is great to see it back this year after a two year gap; the money it has raised has been phenomenal over the years for the Irish Kidney Research, it was a great experience to actually ride around Punchestown a place we went to since we were toddlers.

So how did Niall Cronin get involved in riding and especially taking part in the Charity Race?

“It was always an itch I wanted to scratch and it was at a party one night I happened to say to a chap from Meath, Peter Parkhill, a friend of Slippers Madden, and he said to come up to him and he would teach me and while it frightened the life out of me on a few days, he got me through it.

“After that I went to Philip Dempsey's Yard, rode out nearly every morning, Philip was very good to me, he gave me some lovely horses to ride in Perspective and Jackons Lady, it was a real thrill to compete but to win and then a second time, the same year that Hardy Eustace ran it, that is just the stuff of dreams.

“I'll never forget coming back into the Ring after winning, all the family and friends there, congratulating us, I still have all the photographs and to this day love to look at them.

For some 12 years Niall was the Racing Correspondent with The Herald, having initially got into the media game through the Leinster Leader and while he was studying engineering at the time, it did not take him long to get the writing bug, initially a few match reports, then racing articles and so on.

“A  few lads such as Ray Glennon and John Martin were retiring at the time in The Herald and the opportunity came which was brilliant.”

It never really felt like work, admits the Naas native, adding I was being sent to Cheltenham, sent to Aintree; got to go to Melbourne Cup for six or seven years; unbelievable really.

Niall more or less then went from poacher to gamekeeper when an opportunity came up and a restructured role as Press Officer with the HRI; it was turned into bigger, a  communication role, it was a different chapter, the media industry was changing and continues to change but it was something I had to think long and hard about before making up my mind to leave The Herald (the best job in the world at times) but there was a lot of uncertainty around on how the print media was going at the time so I took the chance, and it has worked out very well —  so far anyway, he laughs.

A different challenge, a blank canvas and one I could put my own stamp on the job when I went into the  IHRB, admits Niall.

“We all have our ideas of what the IHRB, the Turf Club, a closed shop and decisions being made but I got a real eye opener when I went in, there is an awful lot of work being done in there and a lot of voluntary work at that; every day there are three or four stewards volunteering their time at race meetings, people with a wealth of experience; legal experience, horse experience from all walks of life; then covid came and it was then all about trying to get the show back on the road and keeping it on the road, a tough 12 or more months.”

Jennifer Pugh was steering the ship and what an incredible woman, said Niall. How she was able to do what she did, a well deserved recipient of a HRI award but nobody will ever know the amount of work she did during covid.

Racing without people was so different during covid; Leopardstown at Christmas; Galway; Classics at the Curragh, not the same but  Punchestown seemed even worse, people are such an integral part of the place; and you can meet such a variety of people there from all walks of life.  “You could be talking to Paddy Hackett one minute and bump into Rich Richie the next and that is what Punchestown is all about.”

Former CEO Dick O'Sullivan brought great energy to the place; great vision and he has turned it into the friendly monster that it is but also while Dick has take a step back, that same enthusiasm, same work ethic, same vision remains through CEO Conor (O'Neill), Shona (Dreaper), Hilary (Cahill) and all the staff.

One thing, insists Niall, that the new job has show me is the work, across all the tracks, that goes on to get everything right, from the track to all the various facilities, is simply amazing.

“Just look at the work that Sean Ryan (track manager) does at Punchestown, the bumper has literally finished and the  lads are moving rails getting ready for the next day.

“Brendan Sheridan is Clerk of the Course as he is at Naas and the Curragh, I'd meet him maybe at Punchestown to do a video at 7.30 but then he is literally there 'til maybe 10 or more and when you have that pride in your work like Brendan has, and most others around the country in similar positions, that is why there is so much success right around the country.

There is a lot going on in racing at the minute, a lot of adverse publicity but it is certainly not deterring Niall Cronin who is enjoying his relatively new role in the racing game.

“There are some  talking points there but everyone is working extremely hard and the integrity of Irish racing is of paramount importance and be it from the welfare of the jockeys to the integrity of the samples being taken from the horses, there is a lot of work being done.

“Some 6,000 samples were taken from horses last year alone; authorised officer status from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine to ensure we can act at any time and with any thoroughbred while the work Jennifer Pugh is doing as regards the weights of jockeys is immense.

Looking forward to Punchestown?

“It's a busy place, sometimes you could be helping Brendan (Sheridan) sometimes helping the stewards, you don't really know what you could be doing but yes looking forward to it; great racing and you will see people you won't see again until next Punchestown; people are returning to racing and if we get any sort of weather at all, and even if we don't, this could be one of the greatest Festivals of them all.

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