Noel Keane often dreamt of owning a horse when he was a young fellow as he looked out over the mouth of the Shannon from his Kilelton base. His father had been a bookmaker who knew the breeding and ability of horses minutely especially those with a national hunt background and this knowledge and love of horses was passed down to Noel. Noel’s foray into ownership was in the late 1970s when he purchased ‘Yer Man’, a handy sized three-year old bay-coloured horse from Pat Casserly who was training horses at the time in Mullingar in Co Westmeath. Pat’s uncle was Tommy Murphy who lived in Listowel and Pat was a highly successful amateur rider in his day and when he turned to training horses, he was equally successful turning out a steady stream of winners with his most successful charge being ‘Shúil Donn’ who won the Munster National in Limerick.
Pat trained him for a year and a half during which time he ran him in a number of point to points. ‘Yer Man’ finished down the field in his first point to point in Co Meath which disappointed Noel but he improved after that winning three of them before setting foot on a licensed racetrack. The traditional format for national hunt horses on race tracks is to run initially in bumpers, before beginning a career hurdling or jumping over fences. Bumper races are flat races run under National Hunt racing rules in Britain and Ireland with the main idea being that jump horses can gain racing experience on flat conditions of equal length. ‘Yer Man’ ran in a number of these and happened to be second on five separate occasions. “I wondered if he ever would get his head in front, he had ability but a lack of speed over two miles was impeding his attempts at winning. We then decided to run him over three miles and he was second again!”
Andrew McNamara in Croom, Co Limerick was training him at this stage and the natural progression in his horse racing career was to put him over hurdles. The decision was made to run him at Noel’s local meeting, the harvest festival in Listowel in September 1980. Again his luck was out as he was beaten a whisker in a photo finish by ‘Jo Bo’ in the ‘TJ Cross Maiden Hurdle’ and denied the locals of a North Kerry victory. Noel original intention was to purchase a horse that would jump fences and given that ‘Yer Man’ showed real promise in schooling sessions over fences, trainer and owner decided to leave his hurdling career behind and move quickly on to fences.
Jumping fences proved to be ‘Yer Man’s’ forte, he attacked them with relish and became an extremely reliable and safe jumper. Andrew often commented that “you could put a child on his back and they would come back safely after a race”. He ran in Thurles where Noel said that he “won a good race over two and a half miles, which would have been well short of his optimal distance but his class won it for him” 1982 was a good year for him as he won easily in Clonmel, again over two and a half miles and this allowed him to get into the Topham Chase race in Aintree Liverpool in April 1982. This is a Grade 3 National Hunt handicap chase which is open to horses aged five years or older and is run over a distance of two miles and five and a half furlongs. The ‘Topham’ is run over the Grand National fences and “Andrew thought that ‘Yer Man’ would be ideal for the race given that he was such a super jumper. Privately, Andrew wanted to use this race as prep for his main aim, the Grand National in 1983” ‘Yer Man’ stayed on well to finish fourth over a totally inadequate trip.
Andrew was very happy with the run given that he had no real training over the unique fences and proclaimed that “we are on for next year!” The bonus for being placed in the Topham was that he was automatically qualified for the following year’s Grand National. After a summer break, ‘Yer Man’ came back to give Noel one of his highlights from owing the horse when winning the ‘Central Hotel Handicap Chase’ on the Friday of Listowel race week which helped lift the gloom locally of Kerry losing the five in a row in the football. As a prep run for the 1983 Grand National, ‘Yer Man’ ran and won a chase in Tramore with the renowned commentator Ted Walsh as jockey.
Later Racing Career Once the excitement of 1983 had died down, plans immediately switched to the 1984 Grand National. In the early part of the national hunt season, ‘Yer Man’ was targeted at the Kerry Grand National in Listowel. £5,000 had been added to this race’s prize money thereby making it the richest race in Munster. ‘Yer Man’, who was favourite, made a valiant attempt to become the first local winner of this prestigious race as he finished second (again!) beaten four lengths by ‘Royal Appointment’ who was trained by Tommy Carberry. On his previous visit, Tommy had suffered a career ending fall but luck came his way by winning the Guinness Kerry Grand National with his first runner. Royal Appointment was owned by Mrs Paddy White whose husband managed the Mount Brandon and the Grand Hotel in Tralee for many years. Noel remembers that ‘Yer Man’ ran an excellent race and he felt that “he would have gone very close to winning it except for making an uncharacteristic jumping error three fences from the finish which ensured that he hadn’t enough time to recover to reel in ‘Royal Appointment’”. Onwards to Aintree but this time the racing ground had gone completely against the horse. ‘Yer Man’ liked the ground to be really soft, even bottomless so that his staying power could come to the fore. Alas, this wasn’t to be the case and he finished seventeenth at the price of 25/1 but did have the honour of completing safely over the Grand National fences three times in a row, a feat which very few horses achieve. His jockey, Val O’Connell – now a course inspector with the turf club and father of current professional jockey Brian O’Connell – was the jockey for each of these three efforts and considers it one of the highlights of his jockey career and one which gave him the greatest thrill. The plan was to try again for the elusive win in 1985. Andrew and Noel felt the horse had improved with age and were looking forward to having another crack at winning. This time the ground came up ideal for ‘Yer Man’ but unfortunately, he was not present on the day due to having died suddenly from colic. Noel was extremely disappointed with his passing, so disappointed that he could not face purchasing another horse.
The Glory Day
And so dawned the day of the Grand National, 9thApril 1983, the 141st renewal of the greatest steeplechase in the world. Given the scale and profile which the race has today, it is surprising to realise that at that time, it was in danger of losing its lustre. The BBC commentator, Julian Wilson commented that “it was the year in which everyone, both public and professionals alike were asked is the Grand National really worth keeping alive?” However the drama and excitement involved in the race won back the public interest and 1983 is seen as one of the seminal moments in its long history in restoring the race to its previous glory.
‘Yer Man’, now eight years old, had travelled over well to Aintree as he had a real cool unflappable temperament. Noel, Carmel and the two boys Jerry and Kissane travelled over from Shannon as his wonderful neighbours, the Walsh’s, had kindly offered to milk the cows for them. Andrew McNamara had another good horse running in Aintree and had told Noel to “back this horse as he had run well in the Arkle Chase in Cheltenham in March and it would cover your expenses”. However, Noel was not to be steered from the apple of his eye and he had his few bob at 100/1 on the horse the English papers had dubbed “a no hoper”. He wasn’t the only one as most of Ballylongford and the surrounding areas had placed a bet on him attracted by the price and it being a local horse. “Tom Sheehy even brought money from home to place on the horse in the betting ring in Aintree!” For months afterwards strangers would stop Noel in the street telling him that we backed your horse.
Given that he was a resolute stayer, the plan was to hunt him around at the back of the field for the first circuit and keep out of as much trouble as possible. Noel’s first desire was to enjoy the experience but as they went out to the far point of the course for the first time, he was getting a little anxious as he couldn’t pinpoint the horse on the televisions in the stands. “I wasn’t sure if he had fallen as I couldn’t see him anywhere” However, the distinctive colours of orange with black circles, picked by his wife Carmel, suddenly appeared and a wave of relief passed through Noel’s veins. ‘Yer Man’ jumped well over the water jump and “he had a marvellous leap at the tricky Canal Turn” where the horses have to negotiate the fence and turn 90 degrees in the process. On the second circuit ‘Yer Man’ gradually crept closer and closer to the leaders. By Beecher’s Brook, second time round, he was eighth. At the Canal Turn, he was sixth. Five fences from home he was fifth and as he approached the final turn with three fences to jump, he was vying for third with ‘Greasepaint’, a horse who had was to finished second in two Grand Nationals back to back. At the second last, ‘Yer Man’ was bang there in the mix as the ultimate winner ‘Corbiere’ just led over from ‘Yer Man and ‘Greasepaint’ as Noel said to himself “By God he is not too far off”. However, ‘Yer Man’ was an out and out stayer – the great commentator, Michéal O’Hehir said that “he could keep running for seven or eight miles” – but he lacked a finishing turn of foot and from the last fence on, the winner and second outpaced him to the line. Consequently, the gallant ‘Yer Man’ finished third at the huge price of 80/1 beating into fourth ‘Hello Dandy’ who would win the Grand National the following year and beating the fifth placed ‘Grittar’ who had won the Grand National the previous year. Therefore, ‘Yer Man’ was more than holding his own in exalted company. Owner, trainer and jockey were elated with the performance. Andrew thought “we had a winner coming to the second last fence” and Noel wondered how “an ordinary fellow from Kerry could have such a marvellous achievement in his first foray into ownership”. He remembers the pure excitement afterwards in the parade ring and kissing Carmel while “Tommy Broderick from Broderick’s pharmacy in Listowel shouting ‘Up Bally!’” They flew back into Shannon on Sunday but sleep was at a premium as there were big celebrations in Ballylongford as crowds congregated around Danny Carroll’s pub which was a real horsey public house.
In the days and months after the race, Noel replayed the race on the video and to this day he still treasures hearing the dulcet tones of the recently departed Peter O’Sullevan commentating as the race nears completion – “coming to the final fence, ‘Corbiere’ in the lead from ‘Greasepaint’ with ‘Yer Man’ very close up third” As Noel says about ‘Yer Man’ – “a horse of a lifetime and I had the privilege of owning him!”