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Tuesday, 18 December, 2018

Voice of Irish racing still loud and clear after five decades

David Jennings talks to the commentator and HRI award winner

Dessie Scahill: received a HRI award for his contribution to the industry in 2015
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First published on Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It looks a foregone conclusion. Net D’Ecosse is edging past Peoples Park approaching the 11th and final fence in the opening beginners’ chase on a dreary December afternoon at Punchestown. Nothing much to see here, just another winner for Willie Mullins and another reasonably promising young chaser owned by Gigginstown. Nothing new, nothing unusual. Nothing to get excited about. Well, not yet.

“Net D’Ecosse stalled a bit on the approach and Peoples Park gets another chance on the inside,” says Dessie Scahill, whose reliable set of binoculars have once again spotted a momentum-changer. From monotony to mayhem in the blink of an eye.

“Inside the last 150 yards and it’s Peoples Park from Net D’Ecosse and Blazer finishing best on the outside. As they hit the line, it’s Net D’Ecosse, Peoples Park and Blazer, we will wait for the judge.”

Net D’Ecosse clings on by a nose.

Expecting the unexpected is what separates Scahill from those below him in the stands.

“It’s always easy to commentate on a race with the benefit of hindsight,” Scahill says. “I’d often hear of fellas doing commentaries down their local pubs and hearing what brilliant jobs they’ve done. But they would be commentating on a Gold Cup from last year or maybe a famous Grand National from years gone by. It’s a different ball game when you have to do it live.

“I remember one year RTE had advertised for a position and they held auditions at Leopardstown. They were trying to find new blood. There might have been five lads there wanting the job and convinced they would get it.

“Then it came to the audition and they completely froze. They never got going at all. The words just wouldn’t come out. Not a whimper from them. When you’re doing it live, there’s no hiding place.”

Scahill has been doing live racing commentaries for the best part of five decades. He told those gathered around the radio in Irish houses that Dawn Run was getting up to beat Wayward Lad and Forgive ’n Forget in the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He told us Secreto had seen off El Gran Senor in the 1984 Epsom Derby. More recently, he told us Tidal Bay was coming between Flemenstar and First Lieutenant to land the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in 2012. If you were not there, you thought you were.

Scahill turns 68 next July. His longevity and enthusiasm for doing what he does would put Uncle Junior to shame. He commentates on 210 Irish fixtures each year and his voice is the nearest thing Ireland has ever had to Sir Peter O’Sullevan, so it wasn’t surprising to see him honoured at the recent HRI awards at Leopardstown, where he picked up the contribution to the industry award. Once again, though, the wily old fox was wise to the surprise.

“I had an inkling something was going on when my wife Mary got a supplementary entry to the dinner,” he says.

“She would never take a day off work so I knew she was up to something. It was a great honour and something I was very privileged to pick up, especially when you see such an illustrious list of past winners.”

Although Scahill took out an apprentice licence and had stints working with Dermot Weld, Paddy Prendergast and Mick O’Toole, from an early age he preferred to tell us about a race rather than be a part of it.

“I used to do party pieces at jockeys’ dances in the late 60s and early 70s. There used to be a dickie-bow affair at Lawlor’s in Naas and lads like Tommy Murphy, Tommy Carberry, Timmy Hyde and Ben Hannon used to get me up on stage to do the previous year’s Gold Cup. I was only about 19. Some lads might get up and sing a song, I’d get up and do a commentary – that was my party piece.

“When I was very young, if I was at home watching the Grand National I would put up a few jumps in the back garden after the race and jump them while commentating. I’d have a pair of rubber boots on and I put up sticks or whatever I could find to use as fences. I might do it two or three times and then I’d be exhausted from galloping around the garden.”

Scahill modelled himself on O’Sullevan, telling viewers or listeners what was happening, not what might happen.

Dessie Scahill: in familiar pose

“Growing up the only racing voice I ever heard was Peter O’Sullevan because the only programme racing was on was Grandstand on the BBC.

“I met him several times and he came here to do commentaries on occasions. I remember him saying to me ‘what do you think of the current crop of callers?’ I said to him I thought they have rambled away from what commentary is about.

“Commentary is about calling the horses and telling people the positions they are in. He told me that he thought there was too much waffle and I think he was probably right. There are a lot of throwaway comments like ‘in the box seat’ or ‘in the van’ – stuff that’s insignificant. People bring their own style to it, though, and I suppose everybody is different.”

Scahill’s commentary on the 2004 Marble Hill Stakes was definitely different. As Jamie Spencer began to surge clear on Russian Blue there was only silence to accompany the pictures.

“I went down to one of the corporate boxes and was drinking a cup of tea,” he explains. “I must have been half a furlong from the commentary box. I was looking at the horses walking around the ring on the television. There were only four runners in it. Next thing I saw the last horse entering the stalls. They were off!

“I got up to the commentary box when they were coming down to the final furlong and Jamie Spencer was riding a long odds-on shot for Aidan O’Brien. I was absolutely gasping. I remember reading a report in one of the papers the next day that said the turnout was so bad for the race even the commentator didn’t show up!”

Scahill was on time for the 1984 Derby, but little did he know he would spend the day stuffed in a phone booth.

“I was doing the commentary for RTE radio and there was security everywhere. You couldn’t move ten yards without a security fella asking you where you were going.

“You had to get accreditation. I had some sort of a pass but it wasn’t the right one. I had no technician with me or anything. I was on my own. I had to do the commentary from this little green phone booth on the roof of the stands at Epsom. There was no monitors or anything like that, just a telephone line.

“I knew if I went out of this bloody green phone box, there was no way they would let me back in. I couldn’t go to the loo or get some fresh air or anything. I only was there to commentate on one race – the Derby – but I was stuck in the bloody box on the roof for over four hours.”

Scahill might not be too far away from turning 70, but the finishing line is a few furlongs away yet.

“You can’t go on forever and I realise that. Retirement is very hard to accept for someone who has been so busy for so long. There is only so much golf you can play,” he says.

But you can be sure that, when he does switch off the microphone, Scahill’s voice will remain embedded in Irish ears for many years to come.

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When you’re commentating live there’s no hiding place
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