The Irish have a love of the race and of horses that is more genuine than that of any other people in the world. Last week it seemed that nothing was being talked about in all of Ireland except the Irish Sweeps Derby, the richest race ever run in Europe. And on Saturday afternoon it seemed that everybody in Ireland was converging on the Curragh, the historic course where the race was run, some 30 miles from Dublin on the way to Cork.
In point of fact, 50,000 were there, many times more than had ever attended a race in Ireland before. They arrived on a mild, warm day under overcast skies, brave and thirsty racegoers with fat wallets and firm convictions, ready to pay tribute to the animal they love best. At the Curragh they found only one disappointment: an Irish horse was second, beaten by an American horse.
The winner by a head over Ireland's Arctic Storm was Tambourine II, not only American-owned but American-bred. Third was the American-owned Sebring. Eight lengths behind the winner, in fourth place, was the favorite, American-owned and Irish-bred Larkspur, winner of the Epsom Derby last month. And trailing a way over the rough turf were 20 other horses, the survivors of an original list of 627 nominees.
If the race seemed to constitute a major breakthrough for American owners, it completely failed to solve the perplexing question of which is the best 3-year-old in Europe this year. The four major tests—the French Derby, the Epsom Derby, the Grand Prix de Paris and now the Irish Derby—have produced four different winners, and in this the European season has developed an interesting parallel to our own. Sir Gaylord, Ridan, Decidedly, Greek Money and Jaipur have won our major stakes, and of this group only Ridan and Jaipur have shown any real consistency. Ridan, however, is currently preparing for some summer races in the Midwest against indifferent competition, while Jaipur has shown such an aversion to work that he has been sent back to George D. Widener's farm in Pennsylvania for a rest. Among the Europeans, the Grand Prix winner, Armistice, is not highly rated; many Continental experts consider the French filly La Sega, unbeaten in five races this year, best of all.
On Saturday, outside Dublin, there was only one best and that was Tambourine II. He is trained in France by Etienne Pollet, but is owned by Mrs. Howell Jackson of Middleburg, Va., whose racing colors are the oldest on the American turf. In 1957 the Jacksons bought a mare. La Mirambule, who had been second in the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe in 1952. The mare was brought home to Bull Hancock's Claiborne Farm in Kentucky and bred to Princequillo. The result was Tambourine II. He did not race at 2, but he won his first two starts before finishing fourth to Val de Loir in the French Derby. The Jacksons have been racing abroad for only four years, and Tambourine II is their second big success. They had previously bought a mare in foal to Never Say Die, and she produced a filly that Mrs. Jackson named Never Too Late. In 1960 the filly won two of England's major races, the One Thousand Guineas and the Oaks.
The Curragh is a typical rolling European turf course. On the route laid out for the Derby, the horses, running clockwise, reach a sudden right turn after a short run. For five furlongs the course is straight, climbing toward the end; then it veers right around another bumpy turn and goes downhill for a quarter of a mile over very rough ground. At the three-eighths pole the course curves sharply into the stretch, and in the last furlong the turf rises right up to the wire. This route was a modification of the traditional Curragh mile and a half, which normally takes the horses out of sight of the fans. One disgruntled trainer referred to the Derby route as a circus course, and many horsemen, after walking over the severely tightened layout with their jockeys before the race, felt that the Irish Derby could be won this year by a horse that really didn't have the stamina for a mile and a half. It is doubtful, however, that after watching the race anyone can accuse Tambourine II of not being able to go the classic distance. This bay colt has the look—and the breeding—of a runner, and on Saturday he was one.
Breaking from the center of the pack, Tambourine II was always well placed by his jockey, France's Roger Poincelet. He won the race by making up ground the hard way on the outside going up the first hill. He took the lead at the start of the straight. Poincelet said he felt Tambourine II hesitate for a stride or two when the colt came to the head of the stretch and saw half a hundred thousand frenzied Irishmen before him. It could have been only for an instant, however, because Tambourine II held the lead for the last three-eighths of a mile, with Arctic Storm coming at him with a rush in the last furlong. Poincelet, nine times France's riding champion, saved the win by a short head. It was his first ride in the Irish Derby. Five lengths back was Sebring, owned by Townsend Martin, who also owns Sunrise County. Three lengths behind Sebring was Larkspur, the smallish chestnut colt trained by that incomparable Irishman, Vincent O'Brien, for Virginia Sportsman Raymond Guest. If those 50,000 Irishmen at the Curragh could not see an Irish horse win, they would have been happy if Larkspur did. He is Irish-bred and, after his Epsom Downs victory, was commonly accepted as the best 3-year-old in Europe.
Dismaying as the American performance was to this nation of horse lovers, this Derby nevertheless looked like the healthy start of a new era in Irish racing. The gross purse was $190,400, with $140,075 to the winner—making it the richest race in the world for 3-year-olds. Last year the gross purse was only $22,000, large enough for Ireland perhaps, but not enough to attract the owners of the best racehorses in other countries. This year the firm headed by 74-year-old Joseph McGrath, which handles the Irish Sweepstakes, contributed $84,000 to the purse. That probably accounted for the presence of Larkspur, Tambourine II and others. The benevolence of the firm is explained by the prosperity of the Sweepstakes. The Sweeps are traditional in Ireland and, although selling the tickets is illegal in most other countries, they are always available at �1, or $2.80, largely because of the matchless organization of cagey Joe McGrath, who thought up the whole idea back in 1930.
This year 5,630,304 people around the world managed to find ways to buy Sweepstakes tickets and shelled out �1 each, the money rolling in before the Irish Derby to an enormous office in Dublin (as it does also on sweepstakes for the Grand National and the Cambridgeshire). There a staff of 2,500, employed by McGrath's firm, Hospitals' Trust, Ltd., processed each ticket and took care of the distribution of prize money. They doled out $8,880,200 to 7,928 winners—a ticket on Tambourine II winning $140,000, one on Arctic Storm 556,000 and one on Sebring $28,000. Another $236,600 was paid to the 728 sellers of the winning tickets. That still left $2,911,546 to be turned over to some 400 Irish hospitals.
Joe McGrath and his firm do not run the Sweepstakes just for the sheer joy of doing good. "We get a fee, of course," says Paddy McGrath, Joe's 35-year-old son. It isn't too bad a fee, either, being 2?% of the total, or about $335,000 in the case of the Irish Derby. The McGraths aren't ashamed of accepting this kind of pin money but, Paddy points out, "This is hardly our only source of income. We run 11 other businesses besides the Sweeps. They include a bottle works, a steel works and two carpet factories, not to mention our racing and breeding industry. I guess it's between us and the Aga Khan as to which is the biggest racing operation in Europe."