Birthday boy Billy Boyers: Sligo's underdog Cheltenham hero

On his 90th birthday we celebrate the trainer who helped put Sligo on the racing map

Friday, January 08, 2021

Boyers and Clarke formed a remarkable winning partnership and great friendship

Softly-spoken Billy Boyers barely raises his voice above a whisper but his achievements speak for themselves and helped to put the area of Sligo on the racing map, writes Bradley West

Today is Billy's 90th birthday – yet another chance to reflect on a stellar career, which started in the small seaside village of Rosses Point and saw him conquer Cheltenham. 

He was never the biggest fish in the sea but Boyers knows a catch when he sees one and an unerring eye for a horse has helped his small stable hit unimaginable heights. 

Owner Paul Clarke has Billy to thank for many a dream day, the duo enjoyed a stunning stint of 50 winners in 50 months. 

But their best moment came at the 1977 Cheltenham Festival when Kilcoleman pulled off one of the great Prestbury Park victories. 

The pair began working together when two fillies which Clarke’s father owned went to Boyers’ yard, and from the outset it was clear that Boyers had something special about him. 

“I found him straight and regarding horses he looked after them well,” Clarke said. “Once they got near the finishing post they were very competitive, they didn’t fall away at the proper time. 

“He was very knowledgeable in how to select jockeys for certain races and certain races for certain horses, he was an expert in that. Billy’s ability to place a horse in a race was one of his best attributes.  

“He wasn’t in it for the gambling, he was in it for winning races. Our horses would always be a guide as to handicapping, they ran on their merit. 

“When we travelled we travelled in the hopes of getting first, second or third in any race we had a horse in.” 

Success was never written in the stars for the pairing, with Sligo not known for its racing and buckets of elbow grease required to get their underdog hopefuls in with a fighting chance of major honours. 

Clarke added: “A lot of people wouldn’t realise that for six months of the year the nearest racecourse to where he trained would be 100 miles away in Navan, and at times we went to Ayr in Scotland which was a couple of hours further. That was one of the disadvantages of living in Sligo.” 

For anyone from Sligo to even have a horse at Cheltenham at the time was considered laughable. They would barely dare to dream. 

Yet, that became reality during a historic Festival for Ireland in which Irish raiders claimed seven big race victories – a huge number at the time for the nation on the Cheltenham stage. 

The most memorable Irish win of them all that year though was delivered by the unfancied Kilcoleman who, ridden by Tommy Kinane, surged from last to first up the famous hill to narrowly beat favourite Mwanadike. 

“I remember going to Cheltenham, Billy suggested the horse was good enough to go and take his chance in the County Handicap Hurdle,” Clarke said. 

“I’d never been to Cheltenham before and I knew very little about it. There was very little association of people from our area in Sligo going to Cheltenham. 

“It would have been considered cheeky of us going with this horse from a small stable to go and try and win a race at Cheltenham. 

“From my memory, when they were passing the stand the first time round Kilcoleman was one of the last horses in it and being ridden on the outside. 

“But he [Kinane] got him there and he got him going coming down the hill. He beat horses of people who I knew, including the favourite Mwanadike. 

“That day at Cheltenham was exactly one year to the day that I had bought the horse after winning a point-to-point at Sligo racecourse. One year, it was incredible.” 

And from that famous moment on, the pair would keep on winning with Clarke becoming Leading Trainer in 1980, while Boyers came fifth in the trainers list the same year. 

The exceptional Kilcoleman would march on too, winning eight chases in all including the Connacht National at Sligo. 

But, for the coastal seaport town itself, racing was revolutionised thanks to the impact of Boyers and Clarke. 

Interest surged and Sligo Racecourse became a more attractive raceday proposition – the relationship the town had with horse racing would never be the same again. 

“I didn’t [realise the significance at the time], it’s as the year’s go on that you do,” Clarke added. 

“Sligo was not renowned racing area back then, it held two or three race meetings a year. 

“The achievement of Billy is that now we’re due eight or nine racedays this coming year in Sligo. There are also trainers now around Sligo and Michael McElhone came out of there after Billy too. 

“Sligo is a way out on a limb from a racing point of view. He brought a love of horse racing to Sligo that wasn’t in it before.  

“But Billy is the kind of man who wouldn’t be making an issue of it, he’d have a quiet word about it. He kept himself to himself and just enjoyed his racing.” 

Photo courtesy of The Sligo Champion

It would have been considered cheeky of us going with this horse from a small stable to go and try and win a race at Cheltenham. 

- Paul Clarke

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