The Galway Festival resumed under a shadow last night, with the sad news that broadcaster Colm Murray had earlier in the day lost his three-year battle against motor neurone disease.
The genial Westmeath man had long been synonymous with Galway, and with all the other major events of Irish horse racing, a sport he adored. But having been such a charismatic presence at meetings for so long, he had become conspicuous in more recent times for his absences, as the dreaded disease took hold.
Confirmation that he would not be returning to his much-loved Ballybrit, this or any other year, made for a sombre start to the second day of the festival.
Murray’s affection for the sport was entirely reciprocal. He was one of the most popular people in horse racing, on either side of the reporter’s microphone.
Perhaps unusually for a journalist, nobody ever had anything bad to say about him, even behind his back. But in one sense, the minute's silence that preceded last night's racing, in his honour, was as ironic as it was poignant.
Silence was not something for which Murray was well known, especially where horses were concerned. On the contrary, even in a famously talkative profession, his loquaciousness was legend. And as happens with live broadcasters, this resulted in the occasional verbal infelicity or colourfully mixed metaphor that could be a gift to newspaper colour writers.
On more than one occasion, I was the grateful recipient, affecting to wonder what he had meant when he said, for example, that a planned helicopter trip involving the Irish football team had been “scuttled”.
Or when he suggested that another team had been left with a mountain to climb after a first leg defeat, but scaled it in the second leg “with plenty to spare”. (I imagined the team pole-vaulting over the summit and crashing down the other side.)
The next time I would meet Colm, at Cheltenham or Lansdowne Road, I would feel slightly sheepish lest he didn't see the funny side. But I needn't have worried. He always saw the funny side.
Sense of humour
He retained his sense of humour even after the terrible diagnosis given to him in March 2010. In subsequent interviews, he spoke of three grim words that characterised his illness: progressive, incurable, and terminal.
Yet he also talked of his determination to adapt even to this “or else you might as well go out and lie under a 46A”.
True to his word, he never surrendered to the conditions. He carried on working while he could.
And when he couldn't, he still insisted on the importance of not letting the disease deprive him of his humour. There was "no reason to grant it that power".
This was easier said than done as motor neurone disease gradually forced him to use one walking stick, then two, then a wheelchair. It also took away, in one of the worst cruelties, his speech.
But it was a measure of the extraordinary courage that, for as long as he was able, he talked openly about his condition and did everything else he could to promote awareness of the disease.
His media appearances included a riveting Late Late Show interview and an RTÉ documentary that attracted 600,000 viewers.
Among the many honours paid to him in his final years was a well-deserved Rehab People of the Year award in 2012, received in his absence by his daughters Kate and Patricia.
Elsewhere, he was a guest at the 2011 Cheltenham preview night in Leopardstown: still marking the cards of others while chasing his own next winning bet (one of the motivations that kept him going), with proceeds going to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association.
As the search for a cure continued, meanwhile, he took part in international trials of a drug that promised at least to slow the condition’s progress.
In keeping with standard practice in such tests, he didn’t know whether the treatment given to him was the real thing or a placebo.
Either way, sadly, the experiment were declared a failure earlier this year. The quest continues.