The Last Gladiators

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Sunday

Portmarnock Raceway, Portmarnock, County Dublin

Photographer Donal Moloney and writer Patricia Murphy visited the race track for an afternoon of pony trotting, harness racing and fascinating people and horse watching.

Patricia writes:

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 super heroes saunter through the paddocks with mud splashed faces and cheeky grins. A slice of laid back Americana.

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.

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.

“We came here today with eleven horses, four drivers and two extended families. A total of thirteen 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 program 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.”

The afternoon we spent with her involved hours of warming up and warming down her horse, taking off tack, putting on blankets, massaging 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.

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.

Donal Moloney (Facebook(

3 thoughts on “The Last Gladiators

  1. Turgenev

    But the sulkie horses are exercised on tarmac, trotting around the suburban roads of Dublin by night, and a horse vet told me that this has a disastrous effect on their stifles and fetlocks – too hard for horses’ and ponies’ hooves to strike hard regularly – and often ends in the animals being put down.

    1. dunphied

      That seems to be the typical confusion. Those horses are not sulkie horses. They are trained by very caring and responsible people. Harness racing is a huge sport around the globe.

  2. B

    Not these guys, all members of the IHRA( Irish Harness Racing Association), it is a tightly policed sport, and has a vet in attendance at every race meeting. They race on all-weather ( horse friendly) tracks, including Dundalk Race Course.

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