KLASSICAL Dream raised a few eyebrows as he burst from the starter gates on what seemed like his own mission to beat Flooring Porter in the Dornan Engineering Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown in December. The Willie Mullins’ star is now as short as 2/1 favourite for the Cheltenham Festival in March and stable lass Eilish Byrne is the woman responsible for his care.


Like so many of our best equestrians, Eilish Byrne has been around horses since the day she was born. Her father was a jockey in England and her mother was a stable lass and they met in Jonjo O’Neill’s yard. Eilish had ponies throughout her childhood, but it was never her intention to work with racehorses. “When I was in college, my Dad brought home one of the racehorses he had been working with, and it needed some roadwork done to get it back to the track. Jacks Island was the horse, my Dad was working for the late John Kenny at the time. I immediately fell in love with him and wanted to ride him out once he went back into training. I quickly started to have more interest in racing than in college work - my mother wasn’t particularly impressed at the time! So they sent me to Jim Bolger’s yard and said if I could last six months working there, then I could do what I liked.”

And like it she did. Eilish moved to England to work for Ian Williams but being a self-confessed homebird, she soon came back to Ireland to work with Willie Mullins and four years later, she hasn’t looked back. She has taken care of Klassical Dream since the first day he came to Mullins’ in 2018 but it wasn’t the smoothest of starts. “When he first arrived, on a daily basis, he would take great pleasure in trying to, or actually getting loose on me as I brought him to the walker. He wasn’t the easiest to deal with in the beginning. However, he was a pet in the stable and was a real sweetheart to brush and on that side of things, he was perfect. He was in the yard a few months before I started to ride him after the boys knocked the freshness off him for me. I started riding him out then and have ridden him out every day since then.”

Party trick

It may come as a surprise to those who follow Klassical Dream and his rather exuberant form, but Eilish describes him as a very easy horse to deal with on a day to day basis. Perhaps not the image of him we might expect, given some of his parade ring antics. “He can be a bit bold riding out with his fly-leaping stunts coming into play when we are waiting to jump off on the gallops,” she admits. “That’s him, though, and everyone in the yard knows his party trick by now. He loves being groomed and usually tries to spend the whole time you’re in with him trying to distract you with cuddles.”

Eilish accompanied Klassical Dream to Leopardstown for his first and winning run and then on to his first Cheltenham. “It was going to be my first ever trip to Cheltenham, never mind bringing a horse like him over and lead up! When he turned into the straight and all the other horses’ silks were covered in mud, and you could just see his red and yellow colours cruising up the hill. I couldn’t believe it! And then the task of actually running up the hill myself to go and get him - it’s not an easy run! The atmosphere coming into the winner’s enclosure that day was one I will never forget.”

Lit up

Klassical Dream was Ruby Walsh’s last festival winner and, in true style, Klassical Dream took the opportunity to test the great jockey’s seat one last time as he plunged and leapt his way down the chute at Cheltenham. According to Eilish, Klassical Dream is always a great traveller and an absolute gent to do anything with to get him ready in the stable yard. But like most top performers, things hot up when he gets the whiff of showtime, and this is where it pays as a groom to know your horse.

“Klassical gets quite lit up when up in the parade ring. He takes two people to lead him up because he can drag you and fly-leap if he takes a fancy to it. He is manageable walking around the parade ring, but it really does set him off when the jockey gets legged up. I almost ended up underneath his back legs in Leopardstown going down the chute! But the jockeys know him by now, and so do I, so we know what to expect, and that’s the secret.”

When it comes to sharing her tips on how to best care for a horse like Klassical Dream, Eilish’s advice is pragmatic: “There’s no one particular way to deal with Klassical really; it’s just about not having him waiting around too long and keeping him walking. To make that happen, you just have to place yourself in the string, whatever way is appropriate. Other than that, you just have to use your judgement to deal with him whatever way you think at the time. He’s a really lovely horse to ride once he’s going!”

Conquering four out of four of his first Irish runs then being halted by health-issues, Klassical Dream returned to the track after a 487-day break following complications of an infected leg; Eilish stood trackside in Punchestown on 29th April last year and hoped all the care to get him back to form would be rewarded: “I was a bag of nerves that day, but I was quietly confident he was going to run a good race. I remember telling Patrick Mullins the week before that Klassical was just bouncing and that my old boy was back! I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, though, because he hadn’t run for a very long time, he was running over three miles which he hadn’t done before, and he was going to be coming up against race-fit horses.

“I just wanted him to come home safe, and I was enjoying being back at a racecourse again being dragged around the parade ring by him! I had so many emotions when he crossed that winning line in front that day. I was just so happy he had come back to his winning ways and showed what a classy horse he is. After so many ups and downs in the previous seasons, it was a really proud moment to know all the hard work had paid off.”


In terms of management, after Punchestown, most of the Mullins’ winter horses break for the summer and come back in before the next winter season starts. Klassical went on his break and with it being such a dry winter this season, many of Willie’s horses have taken longer to get out on the track. This was the case with Klassical, so we didn’t see him until his victorious outing to Leopardstown at Christmas.

During the race, Eilish was more focused on whether Klassical would hold himself and his ‘expressive’ ways together: “I don’t know what I was expecting from Leopardstown. I wanted Klassical to go out and run a good race with none of the acrobatics he has been up to in some races. I wanted him to go out and prove himself and back up his Punchestown run to show he is a very good horse.”

He didn’t let his stable lass down: “I felt sorry for the lads who were watching it with me! I was all over the place when they turned into the home straight. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the big screen. I was just listening to the commentary and praying the race would be over soon and I could turn around and look at what was going on. Seeing him in front just made me smile from ear to ear. I was so happy and relieved and proud that he had proved himself to be a well worthy contender in the stayers’ division.”

Once his races are over, Eilish has a more traditional routine for Klassical Dream, tired out, there’s less chance of high-jinks. “He will be all cooled off in the stable yard and I will put him back into his stable so he can relax for the rest of the day for however many runners we have left. Once the racing is over, we will load up all the horses and come home. Klassical is brought back to his home stable and gets rugged up and tucks into a well-deserved feed pot full of food and lots and lots of carrots!”

When it comes to the groom’s job, the competition on race day isn’t just about the finish line; there are other wins to clinch, as Eilish playfully admits: “At the races, it’s all about keeping the horse relaxed and getting them ready for the race: plaiting it up and brushing it over to make sure that the horse looks their absolute best when they get into the parade ring. Of course, everyone really does like to win a best turned out prize!”

What’s next

Eilish has more than one horse under her charge; she also looks after Carefully Selected, Blue Lord, Redemption Day and Billaway. She is happy to share how lucky she feels to look after such talented horses. And although every one of them has their personality and quirks, she finds it impossible to choose a favourite. Her advice is simple, however: “Routine, good food and plenty of exercise will always keep them healthy, but I know by my five boys I look after, it’s the carrots that make them most happy!”

For every high in racing there are lows, and as a groom, the lows can have a lasting effect. Learning to deal with those are a vital part of what is it is to be a stable lass. “The most difficult day so far was the day I lost one of my horses, Clinton Hill, down in Cork. He was the biggest character of a horse I’ve ever looked after. I cared for him my first year at Willie’s and hadn’t experienced losing a horse I looked after before. It was tough to come home and not unload him off the lorry that evening, but it’s one of the sad sides of racing, and it can happen. Nobody realises the attachment we make with these horses, we probably see them more than we see our own families, and it can be very hard to lose one of them.

“To do this work, you have to love horses because I don’t believe you could do the job properly if you didn’t. Our work as grooms can be extremely rewarding but can also be a very tough job with long days. There are mornings when you’re on your second set of waterproofs, and you still have two lots to ride, and it’s not looking like the rain is going to ease. Sometimes, you think to yourself, ‘Why do I do this?’. Having said that, for me, those days are few and far between, and when you are riding the types of horses you get to ride in Willie’s every day, it makes it all worth it. I absolutely love racing, but who knows if I’m going to do this for the rest of my life? We never know what’s in store for us along the road. What’s next for Klassical will all hang on what Willie decides to do, with the Stayers’ in Cheltenham looking like the target for his next outing.”