Paul Darragh, show-jumping rider and trainer: born Killiney, Co Dublin 28 April 1962; married Jane Macdonald (one son, two daughters); died near Ashbourne, Co Meath 3 January 2005.
With his light frame and natural gifts as a horseman, Paul Darragh could have been a brilliant Flat-race jockey. But the son of a doctor from Co Kildare had set his heart on a career in show jumping from an early age and he pursued his goal with a characteristic sense of purpose.
He was only 10 when he first had lessons from Iris Kellett, who was Ireland's most famous woman show jumper before she became the country's most distinguished trainer. Always a stickler for getting the basics right, she gave her pupils (among them the great Eddie Macken) the best possible grounding.
Darragh's competitive edge was apparent from the time he began jumping a stunning pony, Peggy Sue, at the age of nine. He was later chosen to represent Ireland in three successive Junior European Championships from 1969 to 1971, winning individual medals (two silver and one bronze) on each occasion and collecting a team gold as well in the final year.
In 1974, when he was 21, he spent a year in Yorkshire where he was based with Trevor Banks, who was then running a joint business venture with the county's best-known show jumper, Harvey Smith. Banks's Hideaway, who was ridden by Michael Saywell at the Munich Olympics of 1972, was among the horses that Darragh jumped successfully in England, winning big contests at the Suffolk County and the Royal Show.
Banks had a reputation as a hard taskmaster and, though the experience Darragh gained on the British circuit would stand him in good stead, he must have been pleased to get back home to a gentler way of life in Ireland. As it turned out, his homecoming was perfectly timed. Eddie Macken, runner-up in the 1974 World Championship on Iris Kellett's Pele, had decided to base himself in Germany, so Darragh was offered the ride on this wonderful horse. He made the most of it when he partnered Pele to win the 1975 British Jumping Derby at Hickstead.
Although he proved his talents as a horseman by getting a fine tune from a variety of disparate mounts, Darragh will best be remembered for his dynamic partnership with the amazing little mare Heather Honey, who had earlier changed hands for just £60 because of her alarming tendency to hurry backwards when asked to go forward. Both horse and rider were small (Darragh was just 5ft 3in) but they were full of fire and fight. For three glorious years - from 1977 to 1979 - they were part of the Irish team that won the Dublin Nations Cup for the Aga Khan Trophy, supplying the only double clear round for Ireland in the final year during which they were also on the winning team at Aachen in Germany.
Because of his affection for the diminutive mare, Darragh did not want Heather Honey to be considered for the 1979 European Championships in Rotterdam. She had, he said, "a heart as big as Ireland" - but she did not possess unlimited scope. She had given everything she had at the previous year's World Championships, but could only plough through some of the huge fences that she faced there. Darragh was nevertheless chosen to ride Carroll's Carrigroe at the Europeans, but he pulled out after problems at Hickstead. "I don't want to ruin a good horse by taking him to Rotterdam at this stage and I don't want to ruin the team's chances either," he said.
As he came to the end of his distinguished riding career (which included two Olympic Games, two world championships and a hugely popular win on home ground in the 1987 Dublin Grand Prix), Darragh was already in demand as a trainer. His pupils included Princess Haya, daughter of the late King of Jordan, who was to be her country's first Olympic show jumper when she competed in Sydney in 2000, and Dermott Lennon, who went on to win the world title in 2002.
Princess Haya sang his praises as a trainer. Fellow riders described him as an inspirational team-mate. Avril Doyle, President of the Equestrian Federation of Ireland, said that he was "very bright, had definite opinions and was prepared to stand up and be counted". Above all, he will be remembered for being fiercely competitive in the arena (especially in speed competitions, in which he was renowned for his do-or-die efforts) and for being the best and liveliest of companions when the class was over.
Genevieve MurphyReuse content