STATUS yellow, the radio says. It’s dark, wet and a generally horrible Monday morning in Dublin city, but as bad as the traffic is getting out of town, it pales in comparison to the opposite side of the road. The yellow lights shine back for miles on the M7, not quite as far as the Curragh, but far enough to make you fully appreciate the open road.
The destination is Henry de Bromhead’s yard in Co Waterford. It’s now status orange warning for Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow. You’d worry for the morning. A trip to see Honeysuckle, A Plus Tard and Minella Indo et al is never not exciting, but the weather can put a dampner on things.
But as soon as the M7 merges into the M9, with each passing kilometre, the sky becomes brighter and brighter. In Knockeen, it’s gorgeous.
“They’re just in there with the queen,” Nicole Kent says with a smile.
And there she is. It’s a Monday morning spent in Honeysuckle’s back yard, literally. She wanders around randomly, seemingly happy enough to have a few visitors, though that is a regular experience for her.
It is now less than two weeks to when she’ll go for a spectacular fourth Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Earlier, she schooled with Rachael. Everyone was happy with her. She’ll follow the same programme that she always does. Fairyhouse, Dublin Racing Festival, Cheltenham.
Willie Mullins thinks she is an outrageous price at 4/1 for the Champion Hurdle.
“It’s lovely to hear him say that but I don’t know, it’s not for me to comment,” de Bromhead says a little later, gathered round a small huddle of press.
“I suppose you can see what she has achieved. Obviously you can see why people would support Constitution Hill. He was so impressive and his times and all the various things we gauge these different races on. You can understand that, but also on the other hand she’s been there and done it all, she’s stood the test of time.
“I probably don’t know enough about times and that sort of thing. Obviously what Constitution Hill did was amazing but I suppose the faster they go for Honey, the better she is as well. Look at the Hatton’s Grace last year, she had it won a half mile from home - they went a ferocious gallop for her. The faster they go, the better she is.
“I think I was slightly taken aback last year when they said Constitution Hill was a freak (after the Supreme). The day after, I was being interviewed and my point was, ‘Yeah I’m not saying he wouldn’t beat her but surely if he’s a freak, she’s a freak.”
That’s just about as combative a comment you’ll get from Henry de Bromhead. Refreshingly, he sees the value of a Constitution Hill, despite the significant threat he poses to Honeysuckle’s third Champion Hurdle bid and unbeaten record.
He also has a word of support for Nicky Henderson, who was bombarded with criticism last weekend following his decision to hold back the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner from making his seasonal debut at Ascot on account of the ground.
“Nicky Henderson just wants the best for his horse,” he asserts. “If he put up on Monday ‘Constitution Hill is out for the season’, we’d all be giving out about that. So that’s being unfair. The reaction is ridiculous, absolutely.
“These good horses are so hard to come by, all you want to do is look after them and make sure that they can fulfill their promise. So I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that he’s being criticised. If Nicky Henderson decided the ground wasn’t safe for his horse, that is ‘end of’, and I don’t think he needs to apologise for that.”
Nicky got the brunt of the backlash last weekend but he wasn’t the only one. Venetia Williams took out L’Homme Presse. Alan King took out Edwardstone. And Henry himself took out Journey With Me and Telmesomethinggirl on account of quick ground conditions at Punchestown and Cork.
Critics hold the view that trainers have Cheltenham so far up on a pedestal that everything before has decreased in value. That is a valid point that needs to be raised and connections need to be questioned, but there is a larger issue at hand here. The ramifications of global warming are far greater for society than ground concerns for jumps horses, but it’s changing the sport as we know it.
“It is a global warming conversation,” de Bromhead agrees. “There are bigger things than horse racing of course but I think that’s the conversation, by the looks of the weather. They’ve also done a great job with the drainage of all the tracks.”
Too good a job?
“Possibly, not knowing what was coming in our weather systems. I’m not sure on the whole thing, but I suppose the one thing I always say is that I’d never criticise a clerk of the course for having the ground too soft.
“Let’s say they are promised rain but they still water and the rain doesn’t come, at least you still have nice ground. Whereas if they don’t get the rain that was forecast you know, I think they are much better off to water it anyway if they have a fear.
“For instance during Cheltenham last year, the ground was the quickest I’ve ever seen it. Even on Wednesday morning, I said I’m not going to run Journey With Me, definitely not. But they had watered and even though the rain came after, in my opinion it was the right call to water because I’d much prefer it to be soft.”
Needless to say, we will see these good horses eventually. Indeed, Journey With Me starts today at Gowran Park. Over hurdles, there is a posse of nice young horses who have already started or are set to run soon.
Arctic Bresil gets a mention. So does Barry The Butcher. And Hiddenvalley Lake, who has won his maiden hurdle already. And Heart Wood, a French recruit who made a promising start to her chasing career at Navan last week.
Talented young horses beginning their track careers at Knockeen isn’t a new phenomenon. For all that Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins have dominated in this country, de Bromhead has won the last two renewals of both the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.
That is perhaps the best illustration of a quality-over-quantity approach that has served the 50-year-old so well over the last decade or so.
“I built a few boxes there two years ago and swore, barring the kids want to do it, I won’t build another one,” he recalls. “So we have room for 100 odd and that’s it. I don’t need any more.
“I suppose sometimes you think, ‘My God, we are going to get left behind because everyone else is buying so many,’ and you probably need numbers but we try to be selective in what we buy and we are very lucky to get the support we get from everyone to buy them.
“I suppose how I manage my thoughts on that is that when you see what we have had from buying even less than we buy now, you know. We’ve had some incredible horses in the last few years.
“Now maybe that’s just my lot, you know, who knows, maybe I just got lucky and that was my run for my career and that’s it. I’ve so much respect for every trainer in this country, it’s so hard to win any race now. You’d always be learning off other trainers as well.
“I’ve tinkered with things I’d say every year since we started. Like, if you compare now to our first year, there is a huge difference. You’re always learning.”
Of course, we’re chatting away here, and it’s intriguing and interesting and thoroughly enjoyable, and yet it all seems so trivial when you take into account the horrible tragedy that has struck de Bromhead and his family in September.
“It’s horrific, to be honest,” de Bromhead replies when asked how he is coping. “I mean you have good days and bad days, but that’s it, what do you do?
“I suppose I’m very lucky to be doing something I really enjoy doing. I mean it’s tough at times and when you are as low as I am, you know, the bad, the disappointments are harder to go through.
“Like at Haydock on Saturday (for A Plus Tard’s run in the Betfair Chase), you’d be frustrated but my daughter came over with her friend and my father-in-law came over as well. The Thompsons are amazing. Richard just was brilliant after, he just said ‘look, we are in bonus territory now anyway’.
“Everyone at Haydock was brilliant with us and of course you appreciate that, and all the support people have.”
That, you suspect, will be a theme right through the season and beyond. You’d simply love to see the de Bromheads get some sort of solace on the track. What a potentially poignant and beautiful moment it will be if it’s Honeysuckle who leads the way again.
Head-scratch: the case of Bob and AP
“IF only they could talk,” muses Nicole Kent as we stand opposite A Plus Tard, known as AP around here. If only.
A Plus Tard’s run in the Betfair Chase is a real head-scratcher. No one in Knockeen was expecting it. When you get an unexpected bad run from a good horse, the natural inclination is to find an excuse, a reason, a problem to fix, but on this occasion, there is nothing.
Zoe Smalley, travelling head girl, took him back home on Saturday evening.
“Rachael called me just as we were getting and was like ‘Has anything shown up yet’ (in a worried voice). But there was nothing at all and he has been fine since.”
The ground, the Gold Cup effect, the first run of the season or just one of those things. It seems like everything is on the table at the moment.
“I think you always have hard races in the Gold Cup,” de Bromhead says. “But he came back looking great and we were delighted with him. His work has been amazing. He worked really well 10 days ago.
“Watching the race, I definitely felt that we weren’t travelling as well or jumping as well as we did last year or as we normally would, but he can do that, like in the Gold Cup, at stages he didn’t seem to be going as well as you’d like.
“He did lock on a bit as they turned on and I was thinking, ‘right, here we go,’ but Rachael was never really happy with him at any stage. It was just one of those things really.”
The plan from here?
“We still have six weeks or just under that to Christmas,” de Bromhead says. “We’d love to go back to the Savills Chase, once we feel he’s right, you know. Obviously we will be doing every test we can between now and then to make sure he is right.”
To an extent, Bob Olinger is another head-scratcher. De Bromhead didn’t know how to feel after he finished second to Home By The Lee in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan, and he still doesn’t really know now.
“Do you know, it was probably a bit unfair on the winner,” he reflects. “I had just glanced at the betting and saw his price, I don’t go into deep analysis of races beforehand to be honest. He was only beaten six or seven lengths in a Stayers’ Hurdle so he probably just outstayed us.
“We try to have these horses that are probably going to run three or four times a season as right as we can for their first race but within reason. He was a piece of work short and this isn’t an excuse but I think you could see that possibly took its toll.
“I’m hoping he just needed the run. And like I said on the day, if Home By The Lee hadn’t been in the race, I dread to think what you lot would have been saying, ‘He’s back’ and so on!
“We have him in the two-mile and three-mile over Christmas but I’d be leaning towards the three miles.”
“IS Robbie Power more on the ground or on horseback around here now?” Thomas Weekes asks Henry de Bromhead.
“He’s more at home,” is the reply, prompting a laugh.
“He’s not riding out, that’s not for him anymore,” de Bromhead elaborates on one of his newest team members. “We would meet up for gallops at the Curragh, our pre-season build up. We’d be there every week. He’s got this magnificent clipboard that he writes on now. The first day we went there he said he hadn’t done as much writing since he was in school.
“He brought that in, that was his idea, and we keep referring back to it now. It used to be that I’d just keep all the ideas and notes in my head.
“We’d meet there, we’d talk through the horses, no different to Nicole here, or Davy (Roche) or Rachael. He sort of comes up with suggestions of races, plans and training programmes really.
“So he’s been a real addition. He has so much experience and knowledge.”