Kilbrean Boy and The Laurels
"None can beatThe Kingdom sweet For Horse or Hound or Man."
These lines come from a 50 year-old ballad written to commemorate Kerry's football victory over Roscommon. And, indeed, down through the last century there have been no shortage of famous Kerry sports personalities. However, when it comes to horses and hounds, their victories haven't been as well recorded.
This is the story of one such victory, of a greyhound who brought fame and fortune to Thado Leary, a Killarney publican and sportsman.
Thado was well-known in sporting circles as the owner of many good dogs and as a co-founder of the Killarney Race Course.
Around 1928, he approached Moss Lawlor, a friend and fellow breeder of greyhounds, for the use of a dog to service his bitch, Clinker Lass. Moss gave him the service of his best dog, The Loafer. The fee agreed was that Moss Lawlor would get the pick of whatever litter ensued.
Thado's son, Con O'Leary, takes up the story. ''Just after the litter was born, Moss Lawlor was on his way to Kenmare from Tralee and called in to see both my father and the litter. He chose the pup that was eventually to be called Kilbrean Boy. Later on that night, he called back to pick up the pup. Thado already had the pup in a box and put him into the boot of Moss Lawlor's car. Moss drove home that night and put the pup into the shed. The next morning when he came out to feed him, he saw the dog and thought that for some reason he looked different to the one he had chosen. He laughed and cursed himself for having one too many with his friend in Killarney.
In 1930, Orton had the fortune to have trained three dogs who reached the final of the first ever Wimbledon 'Laurels' race. This was richest prize to that date and, as the sports historian, Finbarr Slattery suggests, maybe the richest ever. The owner of the winning dog would receive £1,232 and a gold trophy worth £100. This amounts to approximately a quarter of a million pounds in today's terms. However, Orton, the dogs own trainer, doubted the Kilbrean Boy's chances of scooping any prize. Before the race, he reported to Thado Leary that, of the three dogs that he had in training for the ''Laurels'', Kilbrean Boy always came last. Con: ''The story that my mother related to me was that he disregarded this advice and went to London. Before he left, and because the dogs were at such long odds, he promised the locals and his greyhound cronies that he would put up two timber barrels of porter as a victory celebration after the race.
''Since we had no telephone at the time, the arrangement was that he would phone the result of the race to Sewells, a chemist on the street corner opposite us. Crowds began to gather outside of the doors of both the pub and the chemist that evening waiting for a result. Some smart guy got access to another telephone in town and phoned Sewells pharmacy. Pretending he was calling from London, he said the dog had won and to give out the Guinness. And by the time my father rang after the race with the real news, they already had drank the first barrel.''
The victory should be viewed in the spirit of the time. The country was then only eight years independent and it was a huge achievement for an Irish dog to go over to London and win against the best of the British dogs.
70 years of folklore conflict with Orton's account of the race. He wrote that Kilbrean Boy shot out of the traps first and continued to increase his lead to win the race by six lengths. The family believe today in the more colourful version - that luck played a bigger part in Kilbrean Boy's victory.
He is thought to have come late out of the traps being led by Orton's other two entrants. The two dogs bumped off of each other going around the first bend and went into momentary confusion. Kilbrean Boy bounded through them and ran to the finishing line before the other dogs knew what was happening.
Whichever account is true, it was certainly a great victory for a rank outsider, priced at 10-to-1. Sydney Orton, decades later, told the News Of The World how he felt on that day. ''I had the three winning dogs in the race,'' he said, ''and they had swept the board clean, taking £2,000 in prizes between them. I stood there propping up the stand, unable to fully realise it . It was one of the biggest days of my life; the thrill so great as to be almost paralysing.'' Unfortunately for the great trainer his dogs finished in the wrong order for him. ''If Clandown Sweep had won,'' he said, ''I was on £500. If Toftwood Misery had won, I was on £600. If my other dog, Kilbrean Boy, won, as he did, I was on exactly nothing!''
Thado Leary, however, followed his luck and put £50 on the Boy who was 'out with the wash-rags', as they said, at 10-to-1. ''The Kerryman newspaper said that on his return they shouldered Thado through the town, lit bonfires and celebrated till they early hours of the morning.''
Many years later, Con O'Leary took over the family business after his father's death. To mark his father's great achievement, he changed the name of the pub to ''The Laurels''.
Con recalls that in 1980 he got a letter from the chairman of Wimbledon Stadium asking if he would consider selling back the trophy. Con, however, had no intention of letting such an heirloom out of the family. Shortly after, he spoke to a man called Kennedy who happened to be in the bar one day. The man looked behind the counter and saw the golden trophy and asked if it was the English 'Laurels' to which Con replied that it was. On a closer look he realised that it was the first trophy. ''Two years ago,'' he said, ''I was at reception in Wimbledon Stadium and they had 49 'Laurels' Trophies on display and the only one that was missing was the first one.''