Half a century earlier the Turf Club had instituted the Irish Derby, not least to boost the appeal of Wednesday, the second session of what was then a four-day Curragh June meeting. Highlight of the Tuesday was the four-furlong Nursery Stakes. Likewise, Thursday’s feature was the Waterford Testimonial Stakes, also for two-year-olds and run over the same four furlongs. This fixture then included three Queen’s Plates, decided over two miles and three, seldom attracting more than a handful of runners.
Not, indeed, that the inaugural Irish Derby, run over one mile six furlongs, starting from the Red Post, attracted a big field. From thirty-eight original subscriptions only three faced the starter on 27 June 1866, two of those as yet un-named. Victory went to the only named contender, the English-trained Selim. Trained in Hednesford by Tom Cliff, Selim carried the all-white colours of inveterate English raider James Cockin. Selim was ridden by to his all the way success by Charles ‘Lucky’ Maidment, twice champion jockey in Ireland and likewise in his native England.
Golden Plover represented the same team in 1867, with a similar result, winning in a canter. James Cockin enjoyed a splendid afternoon, successful in three of the four races down for decision. Dwindling numbers of subscriptions saw the value of the Irish Derby plummet from £400 to the winner in 1866 to a mere £115 two years later. Bee Quick went off 1-to-3 favourite to beat his solitary rival, Madeira. Those who did take the price were dismayed as Madeira forged clear in the hands of ‘Red’ Denis Wynne to win by six lengths. ‘Mr Holland’ concealed the identity of winning owner William Bourke, a successful Roscrea businessman, who had founded an extensive stud and training stables at Kilmartin House on the outskirts of that midland town.
James Cockin returned in search of further Irish Derby plunder (£280) in 1869, his filly Melody sent off marginally odds-on to defeat five opponents. She came very close. In a driving three-way finish the judge gave it to The Scout, by a head from Melody, with Rosette a neck back in third. Trained locally in French Furze by Laurence ‘Larry’ Keegan, The Scout was ridden by William ‘Billy’ Miller in the colours of John Johnstone of Skerries, land agent for the Holmpatrick family and a prominent racehorse owner of the time.
William Bourke, otherwise ‘Mr Holland’, provided the favourite in 1870 when his Middleham-trained raider Lord Glasgow (as yet un-named) proved marginally more popular than his two rivals, Dubois and Billy Pitt. Once again that old adage – back the outsider in a field of three – proved correct. After a prolonged battle Billy Pitt held on to beat the favourite by a length with Dubois close on their heels. Although the outsider, Billy Pitt returned to a warm reception, reflecting the popularity of his owner Paddy Keary, one of Ireland’s first bookmakers. The burly, jovial master of Herbertstown House, Naas, had a lengthy string in training with the Connollys of Curragh View. Paddy’s insistence on settling in only one currency saw him dubbed ‘Bank of Ireland Keary’. Tom Connolly, more famously associated with Barcaldine, succeeded his father Pat, the first independent racehorse trainer in Ireland. Winning rider William Canavan, crowned Irish champion jockey that year, and his equally prominent brother David were sons of ‘Davy’ Canavan, trainer of Valentine, the horse that gave his name to that formidable Aintree obstacle – Valentine’s Brook.