Thursday, 9 July 2020

Fergal O’Brien: Good, Better, Best

Fergal O'Brien
Limerick-born Fergal O’Brien spent 18 years under the auspices of Nigel Twiston-Davies, as head lad, before launching his own training career in 2011. Indeed, alongside his apprenticeship, he pursued a parallel career as a point-to-point trainer, winning the West Midland Area Trainers’ Championship in each of his last four years at Grange Hill Farm.

O’Brien was originally based at Cilldara Stud, a new, purpose-built yard, owned by National Hunt jockey, in Coln St. Dennis, near Cheltenham. He started with 30 or so horses but, in three and a half years, saddled 146 winners, including a remarkable 941/1 across the card treble in November, 2013. Following the victories of Alavarado and The Govaness at the Open Meeting at Cheltenham and Gunner Fifteen at Uttoxeter, O’Brien quipped, “I said to my wife I may as well shoot myself now as we won’t get many days better than this.”

In 2015, O’Brien moved his string back to Upper Yard, Grange Hill Farm, Naunton to become next door neighbour to Nigel Twiston-Davies and has continued to flourish ever since. In 2016/17, he saddled 60 winners and amassed £611,366 in prize money – far an away his best season so far – and, with 54 winners and £575,921 already banked in 2017/18, he’s on course for another personal best.

O’Brien has yet to saddle a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, although Barney Dwan went close when second of 24, beaten 3¾ lengths, behind Presenting Percy, in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle in 2017. However, O’Brien considers Barney Dwan, in the Close Brothers Handicap Chase, to be his best chance of a winner at the Festival once again this year. With a supporting cast that includes Cap Soleil in the Mares’ Hurdle and Colin’s Sister in the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Cotswolds trainer has plenty to look forward to.

One horse that O’Brien suggested worth following in 2017/18 is the 7-year-old Poetic Rhythm, who contested the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2017. The Flemensfirth gelding won the Persian War Novices’ Hurdle on his reappearance at Chepstow, finished third, beaten 2½ lengths and a nose, behind subsequent winners On The Blind Side and Momella in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in November and won the Betfred Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury in December. After the latter success, O’Brien said, “That’s our first Grade 1 and I’m over the moon, obviously.”

Poetic Rhythm has already run in six point-to-point races and will, in time, be a three-mile chaser, according to his trainer. In the meantime, he is likely head back to the Cheltenham Festival for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, for which he is a top-priced 16/1.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Kim Bailey: Triumph and Disaster

Kim Bailey
Kim Bailey has had his fair share of ups and downs in his career. As a young man, he worked for the late Humphrey Cottrill and the late Captain Tim Forster, before spending three years with the late Fred Rimell, during which the training legend saddled Comedy Of Errors to win the Champion Hurdle, Royal Frolic to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Rag Trade to win the Grand National.

Coincidentally, Kim Bailey is the only current trainer to have won all three races, with Alderbrook in 1995, Master Oats in 1995 and Mr. Frisk in 1990. He also has the distinction of having saddled a winner at every National Hunt racecourse in the country.

Bailey started training, in his own right, in Lambourn, Berkshire in 1979 and, in his heyday, saddled 86 winners in the 1993/94 season. However, in 1999, he sold his yard in Lambourn and set up a new, purpose built, stable at Grange Farm, near Preston Capes, Northamptonshire. However, after a promising start, the project turned into an unmitigated disaster. In his first season, Bailey saddled just nine winners, a violent storm washed away his all-weather gallop and foot-and-disease prevented movement of his horses to his neighbours’ gallops.

Having reached “the lowest I ever got”, Bailey left Preston Capes in September 2006 and now has 50-box yard in Thornhill Farm, which covers 1,000 acres, in Andoversford, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He later reflected, “We moved to Gloucestershire with not as many horses as I'd like to have had – we moved with 27 or 28 horses – and they were the dregs.” The demise in his fortunes was reflected by the number of winners he saddled in the 2007/08 season – just three – but now safely ensconced in a state-of-the-art training facility in the heart of the Cotswolds, he has steadily fought his way back from the brink in recent seasons.

Of course, he’s had a few disappointments. Harry Topper, whom Bailey once described as “the best horse I’ve had since [Master Oats]”, won the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in 2013 and the Denman Chase at Newbury the following year, but never hit the heights originally anticipated. More recently, winning pointer Johnny Ocean, who Bailey hoped would be “an exciting one”, was pulled up on his first two starts under Rules in late 2017. Nevertheless, Bailey has saddled over 1,100 winners in his 38-year career, so while his current total of 38 winners for the 2017/18 season is some way below his best, it’s unlikely that he’s lost his knack.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Ed Dunlop: Tragedy to Triumph

Ed Dunlop
Edward Alexander Leeper Dunlop, usually known as “Ed”, is the son of John Dunlop, who saddled the winners of 10 British Classics in a 47-year-career as a trainer prior to his retirement in 2012. Dunlop Jnr. began his career in racing as pupil assistant to Nicky Henderson and subsequently spent three years as assistant trainer to Alex Scott before taking over the role of trainer to Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum at Gainsborough Stables in Newmarket under tragic circumstances. In September, 1994, Scott was shot and killed by a resentful stud groom, William O’Brien, and Dunlop was catapulted into the limelight.

He hit the ground running, though, saddling his first winner, Lynton Lad, in a small conditions stakes race at Yarmouth, within a month of taking over the training licence. He finished his first full season, 1995, with a respectable 17 winners and just under £183,000 in total prize money.

However, by the end of the following season, he’d saddled not just one Group 1 winner, but two. His first success at the highest level came with Ta Rib, owned by Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, in the Dubai Poule D’essai Des Pouliches at Longchamp in May, 1996, and the second with Iktamal, owned by Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum, in the Haydock Park Sprint Cup the following September.

Dunlop progressed through the training ranks until, in 2001, he enjoyed his most successful season ever, numerically, thanks to a string of high-profile victories. His flag-bearer that season was Lailani, who won the Kildangan Stud Irish Oaks at the Curragh, Vodafone Nassau Stakes at Goodwood and the Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont Park, New York.

However, the horse that really made his name was Ouija Board, who won 10 of her 22 races between 2003 and 2006, including seven Group 1 wins. Her winning tally included the Vodafone Oaks, the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (twice) and the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin. During her career, Dunlop said of her, “Having her outweighs everything. She’s changed my career, changed my life, changed [owner] Lord Derby’s life.”

Having moved to La Grange Stables on Fordham Road, Newmarket at the end of 2008, Dunlop enjoyed further success at the highest level with Snow Fairy. Between 2010 and 2012, the Intikhab filly won six Group 1 races, including the Investec Oaks, the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup at Kyoto, Japan (twice), the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup at Sha Tin and the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown.