THE four nominees for the point-to-point category at Tuesday night’s Horse Racing Ireland Awards ceremony were all seated at the one table. Barry O’Neill emerged triumphant, and the applause from Colin Bowe, Donnchadh Doyle and mother-to-be Liz Lalor was genuine.
Of course the first named trio are neighbours, part of the remarkable trend that has made Wexford the most significant producer of ready-to-go National Hunt horses on the planet right now.
And though Lalor, her father Dick and partner Tom Keating are among those battling for their own piece of the action, she has defended the Model County maestros in the face of apparent jealousy within the point-to-point world, and criticism from the racing sector, citing their role in bringing about an unprecedented improvement in the quality of horses
“Point-to-pointing is far more competitive now,” said Lalor in The Big Interview last June. “Some of the yokes we won with back when I started off, they wouldn’t see what direction they’re gone nowadays. It’s gone a lot stronger.
“Those Wexford boys are unreal. They didn’t come in with a big load of money. They’ve guts and they all work hard for everything they have and they’ve made it very competitive. They had no head start over anybody else. It’s the same for everybody else. I’d admire what they’re doing.”
Doyle isn’t one for sticking his head above the parapet. He has heard the negativity, read Tom Mullins’ comments calling on HRI to take some action against the influence of the main producers. He doesn’t understand what the problem is but doesn’t want to make a song and dance about it.
Like most people in the industry, it is the dream that propels him, the thoughts of finding the next champion firing him out of the bed on these cold, wet mornings. There is undoubtedly an addictive element to that, particularly when the rush of success and subsequent sale has been such a regular feature of the past few years for the 31-year-old.
With around 60 three- and four-year-olds in his care now, he has established himself as one of the very best in the business, having started out along with brother Seán working with Colin Bowe. They then went out themselves in partnership, lucky to avail of some land owned by their father Michael, who was a dairy farmer and still keeps his eye in on a part-time basis. That worked well, even though they had two separate premises.
As each operation grew, they moved their separate ways too and now there are three Doyles to contend with, as Cormac is also providing competition. Another sibling, Eamon is a vital member of Donnchadh’s team.
In all there were nine children, eight of which were boys. The love of the horse was fostered by early adventures on ponies and half-breds and it wasn’t long before Donnchadh and Seán fell in with Bowe. It was there the light bulb went off.
“We came through with Colin at the start of that game,” Doyle explains. “We’d be good friends, sure we’re neighbours and we’d all get on, all the lads in Wexford. It’s funny we all came through – I don’t know how it happened but it seems to be all Wexford at the moment anyway.
“The first year we went to Cheltenham with Colin, he got a few right touches there and that was a kind of eye-opener. We thought if ever we could come back with one or two, we’d make a few quid if we had a winner first time out. That was the start of it.
“You were taking a massive risk at the start but there were a good few of us that threw a few quid in at the start and we got it going. It’s working out.
“There were plenty of low moments too. Things go wrong. They’re horses but we’re after getting a few lovely touches lately anyway, thankfully. And you have to. The costs are so high you have to be making money or you won’t stick at it at those numbers anyway. You’re constantly ploughing it back in, improving the facilities or buying the next crop.”
Doyle created history when saddling seven winners in one day at three different meetings last season, and the campaign ended with a career-best tally of 28 successes, achieved at a 26% strike rate.
Meanwhile, Phoenix Way, Feel My Pulse and Dlauro fetched significant purses, the latter a Belharbour winner sold to Joseph O’Brien for £410,000 at Cheltenham, having been bought for £33,000.
There was a time when you might try to time your better horses’ runs to take place before the major sales. But not anymore.
“There are so many sales now, you run them when they’re ready. There are sales nearly every week now so when they’re in good form you have to get them out. You can’t wait because anything could go wrong so run them when they’re ready.
“It’s fine at the moment but you wouldn’t want too many more sales. There’s always a big hype for the big sales and the festival sales are working out very well, Aintree and Cheltenham. Everyone has to try and get a few quid so it’s good that everyone is catered for. It would be no good to anyone if every bracket wasn’t moving and you have to have that.”
And so, to the critics. The response is short and matter of fact.
“I don’t take any notice. We’re only doing our jobs. They’re all there to be bought and we’re only doing what we can. It’s very straightforward.
“The horses are working out so well. It’s not as easy to win a point as they think. Those four-year-olds are all very competitive.”
The inevitable raised standards and reputation of the Irish point-to-pointer means that winning form isn’t essential either to make money, in the same way that being placed in an Irish maiden on the flat can yield a tasty profit.
Having produced the likes of Holywell, Monbeg Notorious, The Worlds End and The Last Samuri under the Monbeg Syndicate banner, there is one standout for Doyle.
“Monbeg Dude would have been the start of it, winning the Welsh National with (Paul) Carberry riding. There’s loads of them there now. Topofthegame looks very exciting for Paul Nicholls, Secret Investor is another Paul has. Claimantakinforgan is after getting a bit of a setback and he was looking to be a nice one for chasing for Nicky Henderson but there’s plenty of them out there now.”
There is no secret formula he insists, professing to do the same work as all the other producers. The key is to have the raw material.
“The stores are gone very dear but if you want to stay in the game you have to keep buying them. To be competitive at the top, you have to have a nice one. At the moment it’s very strong. It’s hard to know that it can keep going.
“You would of course be worried about that. There’s a lot of money tied up in it. You’ve to go through so many bad ones to get the good one and there are so many injuries. Lads are thinking you’re made up but you wouldn’t actually. The expense is huge.
“It’s only the couple of special ones make the big money every year, the fashion sire, the big, good-looking horse. But there’s loads of horses that win loads of races that don’t cost anywhere near that and you have to find them too. Cheaper ones go on and win plenty of races. You can’t buy all the stores at big prices, you have to buy at different levels too and it’s amazing how often one of the cheaper ones will surprise you. And that’s important for the people that produce them, and then for people that buy racehorses without spending the really big money. We’re all chasing a dream.
“You’d always buy the horse first. You have to buy the horse for point-to-pointing. Try buy the lad with a bit of size and scope about him, a big correct lad. You’d look at sires then but it doesn’t really matter. Any sire can get a good one. That’s proven the whole time.
“The good ones will always come to the top and they will win. If you squeeze a four-year-old, you’re not going to get to the racecourse. You just tip away and try and get as many of them to the track as you can. The thing nowadays is that the horses would a lot more hardened up than they would have been before. They could have been at two or three sales by the time you buy them. That makes some difference.”
Rob James is his primary jockey on race day, and James Walsh, Jack Foley and Brian Lawless are key members of the team when it comes to schooling.
“You need good lads for them horses. It’s hard to find them these days, it’s tight at the moment for everyone with staff so we’re lucky to have good lads.”
He has eight winners already from the current campaign and is optimistic that Moira victor Buck’s Bins, who was sold for £60,000 to Roger Brookhouse at Goffs UK in October, will progress. Recent Kirkistown winner, Allbarone should have plenty of suitors come sale time too.
Mention of the spring crop brings a broad grin to Doyle’s face.
“They’re coming along well and looking very exciting. They’re fine horses. You love bringing the young ones schooling. To see them coming through, that they could be the next superstar. That is some buzz. It’s all a big dream and it’s great when it works out.” Meanwhile, Seán is embarking on a dream of his own at Aintree today, with Crosshue Boy taking his chance in the Becher Chase today.
“He’d have a bit of a squeak. He’s in good form and he jumps well. If he takes to the big fences, he could run a big race. They’re planning it a while so hopefully, if he could do something he might go back there for the big one.” That would be incredible, to be travelling to Aintree for a Grand National but the day job will always be about producing the next stars for others to train. And few do it better.