WEDNESDAY, 7:45am at Ballydoyle. First lot. A group of 71 horses jig-jog around a group of press, racecourse representatives and Horse Racing Ireland officials, all here for the launch of Longines Irish Champions Weekend.
It was raining through the dark skies on the way down from Dublin but it cleared up when sky whitened, just as a brigade of cars take the Cashel exit of the M8.
Aidan O’Brien joins the gathering a couple of minutes later. Sporting a Justify jacket and a Gleneagles cap, he shakes hands with whoever he comes close to and then lets everyone know what the plan is.
“Okay everyone, the horses are just going to change direction now and soon after we’ll go out to see them do two canters up the far side gallop.
“Then we’ll get on a bus and go down to see Magical and I Can Fly do a piece of work. And then we’ll come back in for breakfast and come back to watch second lot and sure, we’ll take it from there. Is that okay with everyone?”
Everyone nods in contentment. It’s like Christmas morning.
There are a few well known names in attendance. HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh is here. ITV Racing’s Oli Bell is one of a few who’ve travelled over from Britain, York chief executive William Derby is here as well. Pat Keogh, with one foot still at Leopardstown and the other in the Curragh, is also here.
But really most of the attention is on the big equine names. That’s what I’m here for anyway. It’s good to see Magna Grecia. Patrick Gleeson riding him. It’s also good to see Mount Everest, highly touted before a setback at the beginning of the season, in the same group with Michael De Aguiar on board. Donnacha is riding Anthony Van Dyck, Adrian Maguire is on Kew Gardens, Jayo Kinane on Sovereign, Yvonne Zuercher on Magic Wand.
Donnacha O'Brien puts Anthony Van Dyck through his morning paces \INPHO/Oisin Keniry
All the rider information is provided on a sheet Pat Keating gave everyone on the way in. It’s great to be able to see who the work riders are. A lot of trainers provide this information for press mornings now but Ballydoyle were one of the first. The team ethic here is huge. Anyone who plays a part in training a horse deserves recognition for doing so.
Aidan moves aside of the group and speaks into his walkie-talkie, which transmits to ever rider in the barn: “Okay we’ll head out now. Take your time.”
We move into the middle of a grass area as the horses walk down to the bottom of an all-weather gallop before making their way back up in different sets of groups. They rush by. Zing, zing, zing. Moving well.
A noise comes through on the Aidan’s walkie-talkie: “All good Aidan”.
Soon he is addressing the group again. We’re getting into a coach now and when we get off, at another gallop, Magical and Barbados are going to work together.
“When we get there I’m going to jump in the jeep and drive alongside them. Unfortunately only five can get into the jeep so, I suppose you’ll have to work it out among yourselves.”
We hop onto a coach and it’s literally like a school tour. When we get off, I make sure I’m drawn well to be one of the lucky five. When Aidan asks again who wants to come, I bolt from the gate quicker than Ten Sovereigns and head for the 4x4.
Donnacha has now switched to ride Magical and Emmet McNamara is on Barbados. When we reach the bottom the pair are circling a sand ring.
“Emmet just take it easy for the first furlong or so and slowly build it up,” Aidan calmly instructs from his window, driving slowly.
“You too Donnacha. Nice and easy. Just sit and behind Emmett and take it from there.”
We set off just ahead of them and the view is magnificent. The closest I’ll ever get to a horse race. After about a minute, McNamara starts to push away on Barbados, the Queen’s Vase runner-up. Donnacha is motionless on Magical. She’s all class against this stayer, over this distance. It’s not actually a fair fight in truth, but it’s still sensational to watch. Donnacha loosens his rein a little and the four-year-old filly cruises up to the three-year-old colt and eases by. Her rider then pushes her on, asks her to quicken up and she goes in to another gear. It’s impressive. It’s what you’d expect from a filly that twice made Enable pull out all the stops. What an experience.
I could write a bit about the breakfast and hospitality – the scrambled eggs were sensational – but I’d better stick to the horses.
Second lot is mostly two-year-olds but Japan, Hermosa and Ten Sovereigns are in there as well.
Among a few other things last week, Ger Lyons insisted that there was very likely to be a few machines yet to be unleashed from Ballydoyle. Neither Magna Grecia, nor Ten Sovereigns had made their debut at this stage last year, and from what I could see, there could easily be a similar situation arising.
There is a full-brother to Was called Amhran Na Bhfiann. There’s a full-brother to Highland Reel called Nobel Prize. And there is a full-brother to Japan called Mogul.
“He’s going to run tonight at Gowran,” Aidan says of the latter-mentioned. “He’s coming along nicely but he’s badly drawn and he might just need the experience, especially around Gowran. He’s the type that could run well in second or third and then win real impressive next time. We like him a lot.”
We’ll watch that space.
Horses make their way down to the bottom of the gallop \INPHO/Oisin Keniry
It’s then back into the breakfast area, a marquee you might see at a wedding, for a quick chat. Brian Kavanagh thanks Aidan, Annemarie and the whole team at Ballydoyle for a fabulous morning which receives a “hear, hear” from someone in the group and an applause.
Pat Keogh talks about the importance of Irish Champions Weekend, the opportunity to showcase the best of Irish racing to the world. Then Aidan, fielding questions from David Jennings on behalf of HRI, builds on that point:
“It’s the perfect slot. The perfect time after York and then the perfect time before we start looking to travel horses abroad. There is so much to look forward to. We can’t wait for it now.”
After this morning, neither can I.