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Renowned greyhound trainer with long line of racing champions

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Track legend: Ronnie McKeown

Track legend: Ronnie McKeown

Track legend: Ronnie McKeown

Ronnie McKeown, the leading greyhound trainer in Northern Ireland, has died. He was 87 and passed away peacefully in hospital.

Born at the Maze in 1930, he later moved to Hillsborough from where he was involved in the sport for the best part of five decades, topping the winner's table at Drumbo Park since the stadium's opening in July 2008.

His final flourish came with a double last Saturday night highlighted by Boleys Fella clocking a fast 28.58 secs over 525 yards.

Despite fading health in his latter years, Ronnie remained a licence-holder, leaving his step-son Nigel Bain to do the preparatory work on his behalf and ensuring all dogs went to the tracks in tip-top condition.

Ronnie enjoyed nothing more than joining Nigel at Drumbo and telling those prepared to listen how the dogs would run. Invariably he was right, and many enjoyed the financial fruits of his advice.

He was renowned as a shrewd operator who did not suffer fools gladly. He left nothing to chance in his pursuit of winners and keeping his many owners satisfied. Every year he produced a constant stream of winners and his 50 Drumbo victories in 2016 saw him once again pick up the track's top trainer title.

When his name appeared beside a dog, especially new ones coming into the kennel, bookmakers were always on their guard. He loved landing a 'touch' and was not behind the door in putting the 'reddies' down. A highlight for him came in 2014 when Atitboy, owned by Exeter's Dudley Wilmott and one of Ronnie's staunchest backers, won the £6,000 Toals Northern Irish Derby.

The prefix 'Marinas' was what brought Ronnie to the fore in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He bred his own litter out of Marinas Magic, most notably dogs of the calibre of litter sisters Marinas Magpie and Marinas Crazy, who gave him and his wife Marina much joy in the early years.

The Magpie was undoubtedly his favourite and her picture took pride of place in Ronnie's home. He once said of her: "She was a great tracker and would have done anything for you."

Ronnie had a great way with dogs and others who reaped glory for him were Duffys Kestrel, one of several he had for owner John Duffy. She held the Ballyskeagh 550 track record from 1997 until 2009.

In the last couple of years, however, it was a dog called Catherines Drico who ruled the roost in the sprinting department.

Honoured as Ireland's best in 2015, the dog was owned by Armagh's Shay Campbell and picked up €21,667 (£19,807) in prize money including a €10,000 (£9,141) pot in Shelbourne's Night Of Stars.

Added to that was the Islandbridge Cup at Harold's Cross, the Paddy Power Open Sprint at Mullingar, and being a beaten finalist in Dundalk's Bar One Irish Sprint.

And in 2014 Catherines clocked the second fastest sprint at Drumbo (17.63), just missing the track record by one hundredth of a second, finishing his career with 19 wins, five seconds and three thirds in 37 races.

Ronnie's contribution to the sport is best summed up by Larne trainer Mabel Blair.

She said: "His name has been linked to the greyhound fraternity for what seems like an eternity. His success is renowned and he'll be remembered for his impact on the racing scene and the contribution he made to a sport which he loved with a passion."

A service of celebration for Ronnie's life took place on Saturday in Hillsborough Parish Church with interment in the adjoining cemetery.

The sympathy of all involved in greyhound racing goes out to Marina, son Barry, Nigel and the wider family circle.

Belfast Telegraph