LITTLE did I know when the first Derby Sale was held in 1975 that, a year later, I would be a member of that team. It was the start of a journey that was often challenging, great fun, and ultimately life-changing.

I was taken by my later father, Benny, to Dublin around Easter time in 1976 to be interviewed for a role as a pedigree compiler – and general dogsbody! The company’s then chief executive, the debonair Michael Opperman, put me through my paces, while in a separate room the bloodstock manager, John Clarke, grilled me to make sure I knew something about pedigrees. I passed both interrogations.

As I still had to sit my final school examinations, I was not confident going to the interview that the company, then Ballsbridge International Bloodstock Sales (BIBS for short), would be interested in a ‘wet behind the ears’ youth, and I already had my sights set on studying European Law at the still relatively new University of Limerick. You can imagine my shock, and delight, when I was offered the role at the interview.

My official starting day in the office was to be the week following the second Derby Sale, but I was asked, and accepted, to work at the sale itself, enabling me to meet the team and get an insight into what it was all about. This callow young man from Mallow was then a very shy 18-year-old, but I could not have received a better welcome than I did.

Standout moment

One standout moment from that first day was Philip Purcell singling me out to tell me that I was to speak with him if I had any questions or concerns. He was one of the team of auctioneers at the time, others being Denis Mahony, father of Tattersalls chairman Edmond, David Pim, Des Vere Hunt and Willie Coonan. They were all kept in line by Michael Hillman, looking over their shoulders on the rostrum and prodding them in the back when necessary.

Willie O’Rourke, one of the most respected people in the worlds of bloodstock and veterinary at the time, was part of the sales company from the start, and one of the wise men who helped Michael Opperman to get it off the ground. The task looked for long periods like it might not succeed, such was the gap in size between the newly-established company and the century-old Goffs. Willie took over from Michael Opperman in 1979, while others to hold the top role have been Edmond Mahony, David Pim, Liam Dunne, George Mernagh, Roger Casey, Matt Mitchell and now Simon Kerins.

One other member of the original ‘part-time’ team that I remember well was John Harty. A frustratingly disorganised man, but with a charm that always seemed to get him out of trouble, he was someone who was very kind and encouraging to me during the time he worked with the company. Sadly, John was taken too early, having battled Motor Neuron Disease, and I remember him and all deceased team members with enormous fondness.


Many, many others were there at the time that I started. My arrival in the company relieved Yvonne O’Brien from coffee-making duties, replaced by yours truly, Dorothy Newman was there, while we were all kept in order by Anne Weaver who managed the office.

Pedigree compilation was a very different task then, with computerisation a long way off. For many years I toiled in the company of Elinor Hickey, of Garryrichard Stud. In the early days we were helped by three ladies who worked in the attic of a house in Naas – Joan Osborne (whose home it was), Rita Lyons and Liz Watkins. Many others came and went over the years, but all of those mentioned were among the initial pioneers.

A feature of Ballsbridge Sales, later to become Ballsbridge Tattersalls and finally Tattersalls Ireland, was its sense of family. This extended to spouses of those involved with the company being reined in to help on sales day, and who will forget the commitments of Fanny O’Rourke, Madeleine Hillman and the much-missed Jean Pim for many decades. That trio stepped back from frontline duties in 2011. Today, Timmy Hillman and Alastair Pim maintain those family connections.

The original leaders of the company

IN the now half-century history of Tattersalls Ireland in its various guises, four men have chaired the company. In fact, for almost four decades the role has rested with two members of the Mahony family, Denis from 1985 until 1999, and his son Edmond ever since.

Closely associated with the Royal Dublin Society, Paddy Dunne Cullinan was the first to hold the role, and he chaired Ballsbridge Sales at a time of great change in the Irish bloodstock sales scene. Goffs sold horses at the Royal Dublin Society’s showgrounds in Ballsbridge for many years. Following the sale of the lands on which Goffs conducted its business to AIB, and their purchase of a new site at Kill by Ireland’s only sales company at the time, an influential group of people felt that moving sales out of Dublin was not in the best interests of breeders.

This led to the formation of the new company, and the RDS appointed Dunne Cullinan chairman. He owned Carrollstown Stud, took part in the Winter Olympics in 1920 on the Irish bobsled team, and was an actor. He was succeeded as chairman by another member of the original board, Standish Collen, a leading figure in the worlds of construction, racing, equestrian and hunting. It was his company that built the new sales complex at Ballsbridge.

Another RDS appointee to the board was Hew Barrington Jellett, a prominent figure in equestrian circles and father of Ben. Kevin Frost and Larry Ryan were two other members of the first board. The latter owned Ballymorris Stud and later became chairman of the Irish National Stud. The remaining board members were Frank O’Reilly and Michael Osborne.

Huge contribution

O’Reilly was a hugely successful businessman, Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin and President of the RDS from 1986 to 1989. He made a huge contribution to many walks of Irish life. Osborne was one of the most-admired figures in the global equine industry. A visionary, his influence was felt in so many areas of the racing and breeding worlds.

The original management of the company was entrusted to Michael Opperman, an English racing and hunting enthusiast and successful businessman. On his departure in 1979, Willie O’Rourke joined the company full-time as managing director, and the popular veterinary surgeon oversaw the change of the company ownership and its name to Tattersalls Ireland. He also was at the helm when it moved to Fairyhouse, and was the mastermind of the Pre-Sales Veterinary Certificate, which revolutionised the selling of store horses.

Quality winners emerged

ONE of my roles, which suited my personality and interests well, was to keep records of the horses sold by the sales company. Again, long before we had computers, I kept all these records by hand, and for the team I regularly produced statistics about the successes enjoyed by graduates of our sales.

Compiling detailed records for the first Derby Sale graduates is easy now. You might expect that quality lots would have been in short supply, but the sale made an immediate impact. An analysis of the subsequent performances of the lots sold all these years later shows it gave a strong indication as to the future growth and success of the company.

Look at the bare facts in the accompanying table, and you will see that the sale produced racehorses. It was not just the quantity of winners that impresses, but also the quality. I have chosen five lots for special mention. Stopped was sold by Mrs Hilda Martin-Smith to Curragh trainer Kevin Bell for 1,400gns and went on to become a prolific winning chaser. His principal victory was at Newbury in the Hermitage Chase, and he made the frame in both the Arkle Chase and Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Cheltenham winner

Kilcoleman cost just 520gns and what a bargain he proved to be, going on to become the company’s first Cheltenham Festival winner in the County Hurdle. His major successes over fences included the Munster Guinness National, and the Sean Graham Challenge Cup Chase at Leopardstown. John Mernagh sold a four-year-old son of Arctic Slave for 5,400gns. He was named Artic Ale, and his wins included the Topham Trophy Chase at Aintree.

Mrs Eoin Hanly sold a Giolla Mear four-year-old to Brian Lusk for 2,200gns who was to become a two-mile chaser, setting a course record for the distance at Ascot. I’m A Driver won a bumper at Naas before adding three hurdle wins and eight victories over fences. These included the Buchanan Whisky Gold Cup at Ascot, the Sandown Park Pattern Chase and the Mansion House Chase at Doncaster when he was trained by the Dickinson family.

Finally, mention of a Prince Hansel filly, sold privately for 2,000gns to Nigel Longstaff. Named Hansel Money, she failed to win. However, her fame springs from the fact that she subsequently bred five winners, the best of which were the Irish Grand National and Punchestown Chase winner Maid Of Money, her half-brother Ten of Spades who a leading chaser in Britain, and the smart US jumper He’s Got Rhythm.

Nostalgic trip through the first catalogue

A DECADE ago, I set out to do some research into the first Derby Sale, and found some gems of information. Older readers will recall some of the personalities, and some family names continue to be prominent half a century later. As I am fortunate to possess a rare copy of the 1975 catalogue, I will share some of the highlights for me of the occasion.

The sale was held on June 27th, 1975 with a noon start. Building of the new sales ring was actually not completed in time, and so a temporary ring was set up in the new Simmonscourt Pavilion. Horses were stabled for many years in boxes that were dismantled after every sale.

The first catalogue of ‘potential steeplechasers’ had 136 lots; however, a supplementary catalogue contained a further three entries. That trio was made up of an unbroken five-year-old gelding by Menelek out of a winning point-to-pointer but no further pedigree; a winning son of Falcon, and a seven-year-old gelding by Menelek who had won a couple of bumpers and was catalogued from Dermot Weld’s Rosewell House. The main catalogue was made up mostly of store horses, though interspersed throughout were some lots that had form.

One of the most fascinating aspects about the catalogue is the list of vendors. An early lot in the sale was consigned by Jack ‘Ginger’ Powell, the renowned veterinary surgeon who died in his 102nd year. Dermot Weld purchased the lot for 4,600gns. John O’Byrne, a leading buyer of National Hunt stock, was a vendor, as was his brother Demi who came to be associated with many Coolmore purchases.

P.P. Hogan sent a winning point-to-pointer to the sale, but it was led out unsold at 5,600gns. Timmy Hyde sold a Khalkis gelding to Mick O’Toole for 7,000gns and, named Lough Fern, he managed a win over hurdles but didn’t scale the heights of his half-brother Very Promising. Mary Baker, breeder of Arkle, sold a son of Raise You Ten to Standish Collen for 6,200gns.

Hilly Way

Bobby Patton catalogued Hilly Way and the description of the gelding said that he was placed second in a maiden hurdle at Down Royal and ‘second in the hunter’s class R.D.S. 1974, beaten by the champion of show’. Three years later he gained the first of two Queen Mother Champion Chase wins at Cheltenham for Peter McCreery.

Mrs F P Downes in Mullingar sold a Master Buck gelding to P.P. Hogan from the family’s famous ‘View’ family for 6,500gns. Ted Power in Wexford received 800gns for a Master Buck gelding whose dam’s pedigree going back five generations took up just 10 lines in the catalogue.

The only form in the first four generations was that the fourth dam bred a dual point-to-point winner! The gelding, Scroggy, went on to win nine times on the racecourse and four times between the flags, and his biggest win came in the Charisma Records Gold Cup Chase at Kempton.

Liam Cashman had two lots in the inaugural sale, one on his own name and one under Rathbarry Stud. Martin Doran sold the top-priced lot, an Arctic Slave gelding, to Peter Cundell for 8,200gns. Named Saran Slave, he won three hurdle races and two chases and was a full-brother to the dam of Buck House.

Funny notices

With the availability of sales catalogues nowadays in so many formats, it is funny to recall that, for cash only, you could have the 1975 Derby Sale catalogue for £1. More amusing still, purchasers were warned that the terms of payment were strictly cash. Even cheques were not acceptable unless they were cleared in advance with Allied Irish Banks in Dame Street, Dublin.

Vendors too had a warning that if they withdrew any lot from the sale without a certificate that they would not be welcome at future sales! A notice about the sales programme for 1975 on the back of the catalogue advised customers that ‘Sales will normally be conducted from 12am to 6pm and from 7.30pm to 10.30pm’.