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'Piper' calls tune but it's no lament for stresses of buying and selling

Piper Hayes' win at Necarne point-to-point Necarne, Co Fermanagh May, 2005

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UP AND OVER: Piper Hayes and Andrew Duff on the way to winning a point-to-point
race in Fermanagh in 2005. Photo: Healy Racing

UP AND OVER: Piper Hayes and Andrew Duff on the way to winning a point-to-point race in Fermanagh in 2005. Photo: Healy Racing

UP AND OVER: Piper Hayes and Andrew Duff on the way to winning a point-to-point race in Fermanagh in 2005. Photo: Healy Racing

"You can criticise a man's wife; never his horse" - The Brother

It was love at first sight towards the end of another long day.

He was just that well put together, an almighty amalgam of a short, thick neck, powerful hindquarters, alert ears, handsome head, shining bay coat, loose shoulders and light, swinging feet.

Sometime in May, the sales catalogue arrived out to the house and the process began to rule out the mares and the well-bred geldings with too high a price unless there was a fault that would reduce the selling value. The 'Lots' of interest at the 2004 August Sale at Tattersalls were whittled away to a manageable 100 or so.

The Brother and I spent two full days from early morning to fading light having three-year old geldings led out of their stables to be walked and trotted, observing their movements, looking for that natural athlete that might fall into our budget.

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Dermot Whelan, Johnny Berry, Shirley Berry, Andrew Duff and Des Berry enjoying the moment in the sun.

Dermot Whelan, Johnny Berry, Shirley Berry, Andrew Duff and Des Berry enjoying the moment in the sun.

Dermot Whelan, Johnny Berry, Shirley Berry, Andrew Duff and Des Berry enjoying the moment in the sun.

This was a process with a definitive endgame: buy him, break him, train him, race him - once, twice at most - at a point-to-point somewhere on the island and sell him. The goal was simple mathematics: buy low, sell high.

"You don't want to see us coming, " said The Brother, to more than one pal that knew there was a low financial ceiling to our interest.

Auction

The exercise of making a hard decision on the limit of each horse's value was made and the regular walks to auction ringside were taken where bid after bid was just not enough. On the third day, we were losing faith as the day was losing light, careful not to talk ourselves into bidding on a horse we didn't really buy into.

And then. Puff. There he was. A perfectly proportioned, compact bay on the move, measuring out at a horse-hair over 16 hands.

My elbow caught The Brother's attention. He looked up and silently followed my eyes. Even the wind had ears in this company.

The sticker on the horse's rump told us this was 'Lot 654,' a three-year-old by Tiraaz out of Promised Path, a lightly raced Hello Gorgeous mare with a thin pedigree a long way down the family tree.

The Brother made his way to the handler, asked the relevant questions and returned encouraged. This might just be the one.

The mandatory veterinary examination had revealed how the horse had made a (breathing) noise when exercising, but scoped clear of his wind. This is just the kind of detail that would turn some potential suitors away. We played the waiting game, watching the horse enter and leave the auction ring unsold at €4,800.

The Brother casually followed the owner out of the ring, for the fun to begin. The discussion bounced back and forth until a deal was closed with a handshake. He was ours to mould as best we could from an unbroken, free spirit into a lean, enthusiastic 'pointer.'

I would return to Dublin to get on with being the rugby correspondent of The Herald and the gelding would be loaded into a lorry and driven home to where we come from.

I guess growing up in Tomhaggard, equidistant between Wexford and Rosslare, on a farm filled with mares, foals and young horses, you are either all-in or all-out.

I was always trying to break from the grip of the farm, the skin-ripping work it involved, the isolation, those focused conversations around breeding and pedigree, the harvest of hay and straw, the feeding, the mucking out, the bedding, the riding, the all-day-everyday commitment to those bloody horses. You couldn't get away from them, the kitchen window opening up into a panoramic view of the yard, various heads, staring right back at you from the stables.

Years later, you come to see that the things that drove you away are what draw you back into a wondrous world of skulduggery, devilment, frauds, gentlemen, the washed and unwashed, and the outrageous characters that make the game like no other.

There are the sports that you make your own and there are those that are bred into you, as an inescapable part of who you were and, strangely, long to be again.

The DNA was a perfect match for the racing game, tracing back to Dad's buying and selling of 1966 Grand National winner Anglo and 1973 Gold Cup hero The Dikler, never mind the uncle's status, Conor O'Dwyer describing Padge Berry as "an absolute genius" when he passed away in 2017.

Living in the concrete city, arguing with herself why the small front garden should stay green, not be gravelled, there is that part of you that craves the give of ground beneath your feet, the slash of rain across your face, even the midnight call to pull a foal from the belly of its mother. Back then, the best way to reclaim that land of your youth is to return to it regularly and this was now my passion.

Long before Piper Hayes was named, the vibes were of an easy, progressive nature, taking well to a saddle on his back, the careful increase of work on the sand and grass gallops and in his schooling over jumps. The distance travelled from August to April had been made with the all the boxes ticked from his first serious piece of work to his debut on John Fowler's land at Summerhill in Meath.

The trepidation of the point-to-point scene is that you never know who you are up against, Piper beaten into third, a commendable 14 lengths behind 2010 Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander on April 24, 2005.

Decision

A decision had to be made. We were in profit. Do we take the money and move on? Do we take on the risk of a second shot? Nothing less than victory would show improvement.

Three weeks later, I met with The Brother, near the Red Cow Inn, and climbed into the lorry on the long journey to Necarne in Co Fermanagh for a Friday evening meeting.

"You're not coming up here just for the drive," said the man on the gate.

The long journey was a signal to the locals to launch into the bookies, the odds tumbling.

Our money had been gambled long before that evening on the purchase of Piper and the monthly costs, thereafter; never mind running again, the risk of ruining a profitable first impression.

The omens were not great, the weekend traffic stalling our progress, our jockey Dermot Whelan unable to make it in time, forcing a change of colours and jockey to Andrew Duff.

The nervous tension was almost too much, all future investments resting on the shoulders of this race.

Win and a plan could be put in place. Lose and we would be back to square one. I had taken my place in the middle of the track, away from everyone, my stomach churning. It was now or never.

Piper called the tune, clearing each fence fluently, taking the lead at the fifth-last with market rival Meadows Thyne in his slipstream, the latter making a mistake three out and Andrew getting a flyer at the second-last.

Once the final leap had landed, I became a running, screaming mess, The Brother understandably laughing at my lunatic loss of reason.

The locals must have been amused, even slightly nauseous at the sight of a grown man smattering this horse in kisses. "Never again," I told them, "I'm never doing this again. It is just too much for the nerves."

Four weeks later, The Brother and I were at Goffs for the June Sale.

It had all been too much. And not enough.

This is the final part of our series, where our writers have selected their favourite sporting moment at which they were in attendance, either in the press box or in the stand