Doyen of racing journalists dies, aged 81


RACING:Tony Sweeney, one of Ireland’s best known and respected racing journalists, and a renowned historian of Irish racing, has died. He was 81.

After suffering a heart attack in Dublin recently, he passed away in St James’s Hospital in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Tributes from some of the leading names within racing were paid yesterday including from champion trainer Aidan O’Brien who described Tony as “a man of a lifetime”.

O’Brien said: “Tony was a very kind man, incredibly knowledgeable, and was a man of great integrity. It’s very sad to hear of his passing.”

Another top trainer, Dermot Weld, said Tony’s knowledge of racing was encyclopaedic. “He really has been an encyclopaedia for racing in Ireland,” Weld said. “He was a man of tremendous ability and great trust. I regarded him as the doyen of racing journalists. He had great credibility and he was a man with a great love for Irish racing. He will be sadly missed.”

Horse Racing Ireland’s chairman Denis Brosnan said Sweeney made a huge contribution to recording the history of Irish racing, and HRI’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh also paid tribute.

True gentleman

“A true gentleman, he was the undisputed oracle on Irish racing history. His knowledge of Irish racing was unparalleled and the Sweeney Guide to the Irish Turf, which he published with his late wife Annie in 2002, is the definitive record of the history of Irish racing,” he said.

Tony Sweeney’s work for The Irish Times had been a feature of the racing pages since 1998, with his “Tony’s Two” tips panel underneath each race a popular aid to punters trying to find their next winner. But his insight into the sport, and his vast collection of statistical records going back over 250 years, meant he was widely regarded as racing’s unofficial historical curator.

In 2002, the near 650-page Sweeney Guide To The Irish Turf 1501-2001 was published. He assembled it with his late wife Annie, and bookmaker Francis Hyland. “Tony wanted a statistical record for Irish racing like they have in Britain. He felt it was important to record the history of racing here,” Hyland said.

“He told me he bought at auction what he discovered to be probably the only complete collection of racing calendars in Ireland which JP McManus subsequently purchased. It means we have a comprehensive record of racing here going back to 1751,” he added.

However, Tony’s interest extended beyond racing. He produced a definitive work on Irish Stuart Silver and also wrote on the history of the printed word in Ireland. In 2001 he was conferred with a doctorate in literature for published work by the National University of Ireland.

But it was as a racing journalist that he was best known. From 1956 to 1997 he was the racing correspondent for the Daily Mirror where his work was essential reading, and not just for racegoers and punters.

“Every bookmaker bought the Mirror because Tony was a great man to price a race. There were no morning-lines then and the whole thing for a bookmaker was to find a favourite in each race. He was a great help in that regard,” Hyland said.

During the 1968 Flat season, Sweeney napped 17 consecutive winners. He napped 10 or more consecutive winners on five other occasions.

His work appeared in the Evening Press under the pseudonym “The Toff” and he also wrote for the London Times.

As well as his newspaper work, Tony Sweeney’s voice was well known to television viewers as he was RTÉ’s paddock commentator from 1964 to 1989. He also commented from the betting ring for the station from 1990 to 1998.

Boyish enthusiasm

“What I will remember most was his boyish enthusiasm for the game,” said RTÉ commentator and Racing Post journalist, Tony O’Hehir.

Tony Sweeney was elected to racing’s hall of fame by the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee in 2002 and received Horse Racing Ireland’s “Contribution to the Industry” award in 2007.

A grandson of the record-setting trainer Senator JJ Parkinson, he spent much of his youth living at Maddenstown Lodge on the Curragh. His father, a high-ranking retired London detective, was once in charge of guarding the crown jewels.

Tony Sweeney’s love for history would have been fascinated by such a detail and it was Irish racing’s good fortune that it was the recipient of much of that passion. When receiving HRI’s “Contribution to the Industry” award, the RTÉ pundit and Grand National-winning trainer Ted Walsh paid tribute.

“Young people today have Google and Yahoo,” he said. “We had Tony Sweeney.”

He was predeceased by his wife Annie, and is survived by his son Nick. Removal takes place today from Quinn’s of Glasthule to the Church of the Assumption, Dalkey, arriving at 5.30pm. Funeral tomorrow after 11.30am Mass to Mount Jerome Crematorium.

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