Horse Racing: ALWAYS ON CALL; Steve Dennis talks to popular commentator Des Scahill, whose voice has provided the soundtrack to countless afternoons on Irish racetracks, but who admits that the lure of retirement grows stronger as the magic disappears from run-of-the-mill meetings.
HE'S not singing in the rain but talking steadily, and everyone is hanging on his every word. The weather is closing in at the Curragh and there are 20 sprinters coming through the gloom towards him, but it's all in a day's work for Des Scahill.
It is not a glamorous scenario - he is sitting on an orange plastic chair in front of a TV monitor propped up on another orange plastic chair, with a couple of racecards clipped open to the appropriate pages to aid identification of the rain-darkened silks. His binoculars need frequent wiping as water sprays in at the open windows of the commentary position, but there is no tension in his voice, no 'dead air', no hassle, and he calls home Machinist the comfortable winner of the Scurry Handicap. Job done. On to the next one.
Scahill's voice will be resonantly familiar to all those who go racing in Ireland or who watch the Irish coverage on At The Races. From the nasal "Nnny'rroff" as the stalls open or the tape flies up through the carefully paced description of the events unfolding, Scahill's understated delivery, sparse and accurate, never forced or flowery, has formed the soundtrack of countless afternoons - his is truly the voice of Irish racing.
However, he plays down any notion that there is any great art to his art. "From A to B you just call them - call the fallers, call the leaders, try to get it right," he says. "I do very little preparation before each race, and as soon as they pass the post my job's done.
"Normally I go to the scales to check the jockeys as they come out, and I give them a once-over going to post. Several owners - Magnier, Tabor, the Aga Khan - have so many horses it's a question of fitting the right name to the right horse in any given race, and keeping an eye on any cap changes, that kind of thing.
"Then, after one set of names and silks is done with, I replace it with the next one. There are so many tricks of the trade - everyone has different traits, it's just a question of what works for the individual."
Although the Curragh is his local track - he can practically see his house from the crow's nest wherein he sits - it is by no means a favourite. "It's tough here because there's no backdrop," he says, waving an arm at Kildare's green acres, "and if the sun's shining or there's haze in the air, it is difficult as they go down the far side. Leopardstown, Punchestown and Fairyhouse are better, and the country tracks are smaller, the horses never get that far away from you, so that helps."
His preference is for the Flat rather than the jumps, which he finds a bit boring, five or six runners creaking their way around in single file for two and a half miles. "It's broken-record stuff, I get tired of the sound of my own voice," he grins. "The Flat's a bit helter-skelter, but the size of the field has never been a problem as long as I've had the opportunity to see them beforehand and the conditions aren't too bad."
Scahill, 59 later this month, started out in racing by doing his two or three as a wage-slave with Charlie Weld (Dermot's father) and Paddy Prendergast jnr, before moving to Mick O'Toole's as travelling head man. While at O'Toole's, he was denied the opportunity to be the subject of someone else's commentary, when the rules, now changed, prevented him from riding as an amateur after he'd seen out his apprenticeship. "I rode in an apprentice race here and in a couple of charity races, but I was always heavy, so I'd never have made a career at it, but it would have been a lot of fun riding bumper horses for Micko," he says, with a wistful edge to his voice. Instead, another door opened.
On the advice of Tony O'Hehir, he went for an audition at RTE, and within two weeks found himself behind a microphone commentating for radio. He played that role for a decade or so, as well as commentating on greyhounds for TV, which he detested - "I did the dogs for 15 years, and for 13 of them I was trying to give them up. My producer just kept having a laugh and sending me the next year's fixtures. I kept meaning to call his bluff, to ring him and say I'm not turning up, just so he'd take me seriously."
His next big break came courtesy of the Racing Post, which had signed up O'Hehir to be chief Irish correspondent. O'Hehir had been doing the course commentaries and Scahill stepped into his shoes, widening his fanbase and increasing his workload - the latter becoming a sore point as the years ticked by. The fixture list has grown like Japanese knotweed and has gradually choked off Scahill's enjoyment of the sport.
"Things have gone crazy with the number of fixtures," he admits. "It's become a real chore with so many days and so much travel. It's not really the job itself that's the hardest part, it's the getting there and the getting home afterwards. You have Friday nights, Saturday nights, Sundays, it all takes a toll. It's only golf and soccer that keep me sane."
SCAHILL is a frequent visitor to Old Trafford to cheer on his beloved Manchester United, and has been making the trip across the water for years. He has a grand passion for soccer, confessing to watching any game that's on, no matter who's playing, "even Liverpool and Manchester City". When it comes to golf, he plays off a handicap of nine, and manages to combine some of his trips to the more far-flung corners of Ireland with a swift 18 holes - "I go to Killarney more for the golf course than the racecourse." His mobile phone rings with the theme tune of Grandstand.
Scahill took the translation from radio to the racecourse in his stride, sticking to his tried-and-tested formula rather than changing his style to match the new medium. "I'm not really conscious whether it's ten people listening or 10,000, I just put on the headphones and start talking. I just sit there and do it as it comes, you've got to stick to your own way of doing things," he says.
"And I'm preaching to the converted, in a manner of speaking, as the public have a well-educated attitude towards the game, they know the horses and they know what they're watching. However, these days you're supposed to have it in your mind about all the people betting in-running - it's like you're responsible for them. That's of no consequence to me, I just get on and do the job - if they're gamblers by nature, then they're gambling on the whole thing and it's their lookout."
Proud of his ability to call photo-finishes correctly, although he admits phlegmatically that "you're supposed to get it right, so people remember when you don't", that ability proved a godsend in one of the two commentaries that have placed Scahill on a pedestal in the eyes (ears) of Irish racing fans. When Secreto and El Gran Senor duelled up the Epsom straight in the 1984 Derby, Scahill was calling the race for RTE and produced a bravura performance himself in what was a colossal race from an Irish perspective.
"Christy Roche Secreto's jockey was at Paddy Prendergast's when I was at Weld's," he says. "I knew him from the age of 16 - he became a top-class jockey, and I thought I'd made a bit of headway in my career too, because there I was at Epsom calling the Derby.
"It was a very close race, a whisker in it at the line, and luckily enough I called the result right. I sweated blood that day because it was such a big race, and it was a huge relief to call it right."
The other Scahill call that has passed into legend is Dawn Run's Cheltenham Gold Cup two years later, when he raised his game to match the race itself, instilling his commentary with passion and precision, and mirroring the hoarse delight of the hordes of hat-throwing Irish men and women at the track that day.
HOWEVER, there is another side of the coin, and like anyone in any walk of life, Scahill is not immune to a bad day at the office. He laughs about this one now, but didn't think it was so funny at the time. "It was the 1978 2,000 Guineas here, when Lester Piggott won on Jaazeiro, and I was working on the radio," he says.
"Robert Sangster also had Stradavinsky in the race, and there was only a very slight difference in the caps of Piggott and Tommy Murphy. Coming to the furlong pole, I got it completely wrong and called that Stradavinsky was coming to take it up - people said how could I not know it was Lester?
"Luckily I managed to 'parachute' Jaazeiro in front on the line - but it was a bit of a shocker on my part!"
For Scahill, Piggott stands tall in the crowded memory of a million race-rides, although Mick Kinane, Johnny Murtagh and Kieren Fallon are also singled out for high praise. Over the jumps, three more Irishmen stand on the podium. "I used to think Richard Dunwoody was the best, thought I'd never see another like him, but Tony McCoy is unbelievable - the enjoyment I've had from watching him over the years, the thrills he's given me," he says.
"However, I'd say Ruby Walsh is at the top now, he's matured and become the complete package, all you could want from a jump jockey."
Horses don't draw the same warmth of appreciation from him, possibly because he has seen so many, so often that he is loath to draw comparisons, although after a little squeezing the names of Dawn Run, Mill Reef, Shergar and St Jovite gain precedence over their peers. And the constant flurry of horses through his binoculars is a contributing factor to his growing indifference to the job, spurred on by the unrelenting workload and the routine nature of his primary task.
Like a world-weary conjuror pulling the same tired rabbit out of a hat time and time again, Scahill has seen the magic disappear from the job he's done for almost all his working life.
"I don't enjoy it as I used to - it's just become work that I have to do," he says. "In the last five years, I'd say I've lost total enjoyment of it. There's no variation - look at you, you're a journalist, you can write about all sorts of different things, different people, different sports.
"I come here, put on the microphone, do the race, nothing changes. I go to the same tracks and do the same thing all the time. It's eight races a day - it's mentally tiring, and the hours are unsociable, with all the travelling.
"If I have a day off, I'd never buy a paper. Maybe I'd look at the racing news on teletext, but I can take it or leave it. However, when I do decide to call it a day, I might be able to reinvigorate my enjoyment of racing, it could become fun again. I could just cherry-pick a few meetings to go to. I went to Cheltenham for 19 years straight, but I haven't been there now for eight."
IT'S the equivalent of the old 'pram in the hall' imperative that propels him now, with his children at the college stage and proving expensive. "I'm getting towards the twilight now, I'll stick at it for a little while yet, but not too long," he says.
"There's a younger generation coming through, and over the next couple of years Peter O'Hehir and Jerry Hannon, who work on the courses now, will start to take it on a bit more. Everyone says Jerry commentates identically to me anyway - sometimes when I'm at home and hear him on the TV, I think it's me at the races.
"If I somehow hit the jackpot, I'll be gone like a flash. The following day, without trace. The only thing people will miss is the familiarity of the voice - the game will go on, people can be replaced, nothing stands still."
The runners for the Railway Stakes are at the post, and Scahill is required elsewhere. As he potters about with his plastic chairs, a broad smile flickers across his face. "I remember one Railway Stakes a few years back," he says. "I was in one of the marquees here, catching up with a few people, and I looked up at the TV and the runners were still plodding around the parade ring.
"I thought 'great, another ten minutes or so', and got myself another piece of cake. What I didn't realise was the TV had been showing a recording, and the next shot was of the runners going into the stalls. I was a furlong away from the stands, and then I had to get all the way up to the commentary position. I had to move pretty quick.
"I think I got the headphones on with about two furlongs to run - it was a close-run thing!"
No such problems this time. A "Nnny'rroff", and then the much-loved, familiar sing-song delivery begins. "Lizard Island away well and taking them along from Irish Jig, Another Express third . . ."
rte.ie/laweb/ll/llt07j.ht ml Listen to some of Scahill's greatest commentaries
'These days you're supposed to have it in your mind about all the people betting in-running - that's of no consequence to me'
'If I have a day off, I'd never buy a paper. Maybe I will look at the racing news on teletext, but I can take it or leave it'
Des Scahill: "I'm preaching to the converted - the public know the horses and know what they are watching" CAROLINE NORRIS
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jul 15, 2007|
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