Six years ago, Oliver Brady was told he had six months to live. Had his doctors known the story of his first winner, however, they might have revised their prognosis. For things looked bleaker still for Barts Hill, when Brady stumbled across her 25 years ago. In fact, she was booked into an abattoir the very next day.
Brady was at a Sunday market, just over the Irish border in Ulster, and found a fellow selling tack. He eyed Brady speculatively. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in a mare with a bit of pedigree?" Brady was taken to see Barts Hill. She had been a feeble runner. In fact, she had beaten precisely one horse in 11 starts, but Brady thought he might give her a chance and breed from her.
"I gave him 150 quid, including 15 for the tack," he recalled yesterday. "I took her home, put her in a field for six months, and fed her up. She was weak, that was her problem. But then I noticed something else. In the field, she was scared of the other mares, didn't want to be among horses. And when we started working her, the moment you put her on the outside, she flew."
Brady put the mare in a race at Navan and had 500 punts each-way at 33-1. Once switched wide, she took off and never stopped. She won by 20 lengths, an exotic distance in Flat racing, and went on to win big prizes at the Curragh and Galway.
It was a typically extravagant breakthrough from the man whose theatrical celebrations in the winner's enclosure have put the racing backwater of Co. Monaghan indelibly on the map. And if anything is keeping him alive, it is not the daily pot pourri of tablets, but a profound intimation that the adventure he began that day is approaching its culmination.
Next week, Brady takes one of the best young hurders in Ireland to the Cheltenham Festival. He is so confident of Ebadiyan's prospects in the JCB Triumph Hurdle that you literally fear for his health. "I really do think he's the one I've been waiting for," he said. "If he's in the first four at the bottom of the hill, he'll win, no bother. Nothing will outstay him from there. All he needs is the luck in running."
The bandwagon is careering uncontrollably through Ireland. An Ebadiyan song by a friend, Rose McConnon, played for the first time on the radio yesterday, while Brady has been declaiming Ebadiyan poems at Festival preview nights around the country. The showman is in his element, of course, but he is tiring himself out, too. For the horse has become the spur to Brady's hopes of raising €300,000 apiece for Kenyan orphanages and a new cancer scanner at a Dublin hospital.
"The doctors would be telling me not to overdo it," he admitted. "But whatever time I've got left, I don't want to spend in a dressing gown feeling sorry for myself. Of course I have my downs, but I have a great love of life. God gave it to me, and I want to use it for as long and as best as I can."
Brady has already lost his mother and three of his eight siblings to cancer. "When I was diagnosed, they thought I wasn't going to make it," he said. "So my brother took to coming over from England at weekends. He would sit here watching the racing, and always back the grey – didn't matter if it was even money or 50-1. What we didn't know was that Benny already had the sickness himself, and he went before me. So this year when I went to the sales, Rita, [Shah, his business partner], said to buy a grey one, in Benny's memory."
She gave him €80,000, but Brady found Ebadiyan for €18,000. "And with the hype the horse is getting for Monaghan, and the money he's raising, I do say very sincerely that this is something made in heaven," he said. "Maybe Benny's looking down on us. People say I'm lucky. Maybe I am. But we never have more than half a dozen in training here, and I know to get a horse of that calibre, in a little stable like this ... Well, it's not something that just happens."
Brady was raised in poverty, up the road in Ballybay. Every month, there was a horse fair, and young Oliver would be paid sixpence to trot the lots up and down the street. "Don't worry," his widowed mother told the other children. "Oliver will be home soon, he'll have some money for us." It long remained an unpromising odyssey, via a leather tannery, a linen mill, a car dealer in Brixton, but eventually he ended up with a profitable plastics business. In the meantime he had won £40,000 in doubles and trebles at the 1981 Cheltenham Festival, and set himself up as a trainer.
But there have been no half-measures in his medical history, either. First diagnosed with cancer in 1995, he has since had four operations. He is diabetic. One day they discovered that his arteries were 97 per cent blocked. He was "a bomb waiting to go off" and had a quadruple by-pass.
Occasionally he is required to wear a cardiac monitor for a few days. Recently the doctors rang him in a panic. "There's one reading that has just gone haywire," they said. "Here. Between 1pm and 2.30pm, 7 December." Brady laughed. "Oh, don't worry about that," he said. "I'd just had a winner at Clonmel, and was doing my stuff in the ring." "Well," they said. "Let's hope you don't have too many more of those."
That wish will not be shared by any neutrals at Cheltenham next week. Watching Brady, hoarsening in his Monaghan football shirt, some of the punters round the winner's enclosure would doubtless imagine him drunk. "And the truth of the matter is that I've never had a drink or a smoke in my life," he said. The irony is not lost on him. But however long he gets, he will make every day count.
The intimate hill country round Monaghan has not had such a champion since Patrick Kavanagh wrote Tarry Flynn. "They reckon I'm getting as good as him," Brady said wryly. "But you know, poets don't get good until they die."
On that basis, you will never in your life be so glad to hear such execrable verse as when Ebadiyan does the business.
Oliver Brady's fundraising charity is at www.shabracharity.comReuse content