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The RAF man who helped Downpatrick take flight

The mobile phone rang and Downpatrick’s racecourse supremo Iain Duff, enjoying his lunch, picked it up. The person on the other end wanted to know what the going will be like for tomorrow’s meeting.

Iain replied: “We have had 8mms of rain and we’ll continue to water. It should be good to firm.”

On finishing the call, Iain said: “When you get inquiries about the going, then you know they must fancy their chances of winning.”

Iain, affectionately known in racing circles as “Mr Downpatrick,” is busy putting the finishing touches to the programme knowing that it will be the last one involving himself after 26 years as course registrar during which he has paved the way in bringing about dramatic changes.

“I'm not sure yet whether I will miss it but it has been a long time.

“It was supposed to be a part-time job,” said the 70-year-old former RAF man. “But it never worked out like that. It became a way of life, not just for me but my wife Heather, son Alasdair and daughter Caroline, all of whom have helped in various ways down the years.”

Downpatrick was not much to look at when Iain arrived in 1984 fresh from retirement as chief administrator at Bishopscourt.

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In August 1972 two IRA men were killed in a premature bomb explosion in the stand that probably kept the name of Downpatrick at the forefront of the public mind more than anything else before’s Iain’s arrival.

“The facilities were sparse such as Nissen huts for jockeys to change in. The buildings were dreadful and conditions basic. The average crowd then was around 800 when meetings were mostly on a Wednesday, but we now get over 2,000 on race days,” he added as he prepares to hand over to his successor Richard Lyttle on June 1.

“There was not much money in the early days and part of my contract involved maintenance and so I became very adept at repairing hurdles and fences. I had no other option.

“But I must pay tribute to the chairman at that time, Major William Brownlow. He was a great man and his brief to me was ‘If there is anything I should know, then just tell me.’ In other words, get on with it.

“I really enjoyed his company, advice and guidance. He was a master at dealing with government ministers when it came to getting funding for Downpatrick.”

The most vital innovations were a new weigh room in 1995; a modern grandstand in 2000; one of the best stabling blocks in the country (2006) and new hospitality and medical facilities last year.

“And let’s not forget the course itself,” said Iain, who also spent 10 years as the racing manager at Down Royal between 1980-90.

“As far as jockeys are concerned we have a good reputation for providing a sound racing surface. In terms of facilities, the course, in comparable track grades, now rates very highly.”

A native of Dumfries in Scotland and a firm supporter of Queen of the South, he enjoyed one of his greatest sporting moments when watching them in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden, losing 3-2 to Rangers two years ago.

He was a decent amateur footballer himself, playing for Troqueer between 1945-58. The club were often a reservoir for Queen of the South’s reserve team and on one occasion they called on eight of the Troqueer side, but Iain was not one of them.

“I was bitterly disappointed at not getting a chance to play for the club I have supported man and boy. In fact I used to get a season ticket as a Christmas present in my younger days,” he recalled.

Iain was stationed at Ballykelly outside Londonderry in 1970 and now resides in Downpatrick, not far from the racecourse.

After leaving Ballykelly in 1971 he came back to Bishopscourt in 1978 and there met former trainer and breeder Jeremy Maxwell.

“I remember a call coming in and I told the operator I would ring the person back the next day. It was Jeremy and he gave off to me about helicopters and other vehicles disturbing his horses in fields about a mile and a half away. I told him of my interest in racing and he invited me to lunch. We became firm friends and about five years later, when I was about to retire from the RAF, he told me that the Downpatrick job was mine if I wanted it.”

What of the memories?

“It’s hard to say,” continued Iain. “It was always good to see some good bumper winners here going on to better things, while when we had Flat racing — that stopped two years ago — jockeys like Shane Kelly, Eddie Ahern, Declan McDonagh and Richard Hughes all won here as apprentices.

“I got to know some jockeys very well such as Ken Morgan, Ruby Walsh and Conor |O’Dwyer. Ruby is a superb professional and is a joy to watch round Downpatrick but for me the best rider at the track was Tony Martin (now a trainer) who had four winners one day and was as good as anyone.”

The last race on tomorrow’s card is ‘The Farewell to Iain Duff Ladies Bumper’ but it won’t be a total goodbye from him as far as racing is concerned. He will remain as a PR spokesman for SP Graham Bookmakers.

But one of the first things he intends to do next week is to use his free bus pass to travel from Downpatrick to Belfast and then onwards by train to Derry city.

“Even when stationed at Ballykelly, I’ve never walked the walls of Derry.

“That is something I want to do — and the trip will be free,” he declared.

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