It has been a dog’s life for Joe and Mabel Blair. And the Larne husband and wife, who are approaching 50 years involvement in greyhound racing, would not have it any other way.
The pair, who have contrasting but complimentary personalities, met at the old Dunmore Stadium on Belfast’s Antrim Road back in 1971 and from 1972, have been together ever since.
Both were, however, well steeped in the sport before that, having been brought up in greyhound environments, and becoming, over the years, established and respected patrons of tracks throughout the island of Ireland.
Joe’s father Stewart dabbled in coursing dogs from his Ballygally base and that’s where young Joe got his first taste of the sport as a teenager.
Now 68, Joe’s primary love has always been track racing and likewise for Mabel whom he married in 1974.
“We first met at Dunmore Stadium in the winter months of 1971. I remember it well for while everyone else was wrapped up against the cold, Joe was in a white sleeveless shirt! I thought he was mad but the interest in dogs brought us together and has kept us that way. Mind you, some might say 36 years in ‘purgatory’ is long enough,” she laughed.
That’s typical of her response as she always brings humour to everything she says or does.
Her ebullient personality and ‘carpe diem’ spirit has carried the couple through various trials and tribulations.
Mabel has for years, battled courageously against cancer and simply refuses to let it beat her. Joe went through a heart procedure 12 years ago and then the couple suffered the loss of their son Karl in a motorbike accident in England four years ago.
A retired nurse, Mabel is one of the most popular figures in the sport and is warmly greeted no matter where she goes.
“The emotional and other forms of support we received in the aftermath of Karl’s death from the greyhound fraternity north and south was unbelievable and helped us through a heartbreakingly tough and sad time.
“Two very good friends Neilly and Madeline Henry were very much there for us and still are to this day. I do not know what we would do without them.
“But then that is the way with doggy people. We are very much a wide family and a breed onto ourselves when it comes to looking after each other,” said Mabel.
“To be honest racing has probably kept me alive and provides the motivation to plough on. It is hard work but I count every day as a blessing.
“Our other son James has no real interest in following in our footsteps, but his daughter Demi-Leigh enjoys nothing more than going with us to the tracks and leading the dogs out. She is only 10 and loves being involved. I hope it continues.”
Mabel is a daughter of the late Jim Nelson who with his wife Maureen, now 88, and a fanatic of Grand Prix motor racing, turned out to be very successful breeders of open class and record-breaking greyhounds.
It all began for Jim and hence Mabel, with a bitch called Nelson’s Farewell bought by her father from a neighbour.
All Farewell’s progeny carried the ‘Moordyke’ name, many of them being sold to buyers in England. The rest as they say, is history.
To many, Joe who celebrated his 68th birthday recently is a taciturn figure with a serious exterior. He does not suffer fools gladly and is a fierce defender of what he believes in.
But underneath lies a wicked sense of fun, a shrewd observer’s brain and a warming heart that beats with the best of intentions when it comes to helping others.
He also has a touch of the Barney Curley about him.
Barney is renowned for landing major gambles in laying horses out for particular races
and Joe has a similar knack when it comes to his dogs.
“I have had some great moments in the past including a four-timer at Shelbourne Park and a five-timer one night at Dungannon.
“Now, I’m more patient maybe because I am still waiting on the right dog to come along.
“There is no greater buzz, although it can go badly wrong as happened at Dunmore one night with Rush For Silver,“ recalled Joe. “He was a brilliant dog who could race over two, four and six bends. He could sprint and stay.
“It was in 1989 and I had another dog at the track that night and backed him to win which he did at a big price. All of the winnings and a bit more went on to Silver in a 525 race. Up went the lids and away he went but just as he was turning the first bend he had his back legs clipped and down he flopped.
“Everything else went past him and they were approaching the top bend when he was only going past the Dunmore sprint boxes which meant he was a long way behind.
“He flew home and failed by less than half a length. That still rankles to this day.
“He was a certainty bet and went on to set a track record at Shelbourne which stood for nine years.
Mabel was equally devoted to this dog who set track records at Dunmore, Dundalk and Shelbourne Park before ending his career with a win in the Sportsman’s 700 at Dunmore when four years and one day old.
She said: “Of all the dogs we have had, Rush For Silver was very special. I wish we had one like him today.
“He is buried alongside his mother underneath a tree at the back of the house.”
The Blairs with 40 dogs under their care, have just had 10 additions to the ‘family.' A litter of pups by Droopys Scolari out of Lils Wonder — seven dogs and three bitches.
Who knows, maybe there’s another Rush For Silver there in the making and Joe will get the dog he has been waiting for.