NOEL Meade describes himself as the eternal optimist. Indeed he considers it a job requirement for anyone figuring on a career as a racehorse trainer.
Generally, he is a man of sunny disposition. Serious about his work but loves a good time. No wonder Galway is a happy hunting ground.
The generally positive outlook on life has been sorely tested for the first half of 2014 however.
Very Wood did have Grade 1 success at Cheltenham and Ned Buntline was only touched off later that same day. But that was an almost solitary beacon in an otherwise overcast vista around Tu Va.
A virus laid the horses low initially. Those Cheltenham runs gave hope that things might be turning around but they were a false omen.
Punchestown was poor and the seven-time champion (nine-time trainer of most winners) was at his wits’ end. In the middle of it all, his mother, Agnes died in her 101st year.
You keep trucking on but the yard just wasn’t firing. There was no winner in Ireland in March; just one each in May and June.
Everything was tested, equipment cleaned, the four water tanks washed out on numerous occasions. No change.
“But then we did another test about five weeks ago and the well came up wrong. I wouldn’t think it was awfully bad. I was drinking it myself and (my brother) Ben’s house was drinking it too. But, when your immune system gets down a bit with what happened to them earlier in the spring and they were on it constantly - whereas I would be drinking other things! - it was affecting them.
“We’re lucky enough that Ben used to grow mushrooms and he had sunk two wells at the time because he was using a lot of water. They are very deep wells, way deeper than the one I was using. We changed to those, and had flushed out the systems a few times by that stage.”
Another key ingredient was a friendship with renowned herbalist and former All-Ireland winning Meath football manager, Sean Boylan. Boylan had a look around the yard and made up a flush for the horses.
Within a week, Formidableopponent was an admittedly fortunate winner of a beginners’ chase at Killarney. Four days later there was a Tipperary double before Road To Riches bolted up in the Galway Plate and Maxim Gorky also hit the mark out west. Ben texted him after the latter success suggesting they start bottling the water, such was the dramatic turnaround.
On Tuesday night in Roscommon, Bose Ikard made it seven winners in 20 days. The fact Please Talk followed his stablemate home in second added to the impression that the tide has finally turned. What a blessed relief.
“I was pulling my hair out” Meade admits. “It was very frustrating. Granted, at the end of the season we were able to let a lot of them off but it’s not easy to go to the races and expect horses to run well and have no explanation for why they’re running so bad.
“You start to doubt yourself and think ‘God, what am I doing wrong?’ I’ve been at it long enough now to know that these things happen but at the same time it does get to you bit and you get very chippy about it at times. I’m sure I wasn’t great company with a lot of people. It’s very hard to know what to do.”
He never considered throwing his well-known hat at it though. Too many people rely on him and he doesn’t know anything else. It is ingrained in his life and there’ll be no career changes at this juncture of it.
Which is very good news. All the indications are that Tu Va is a healthy environment once more and that means it is going to be a major player, particularly with Gigginstown and JP McManus the foundation of a loyal core of owners. Meade has proven over and over that if you give him the materials, he will produce the goods.
It was fitting that Galway provided the confirmation of the return to form. It is his favourite place in the world, where he goes to holiday. He stays in the city for the entire festival week, soaking in the carnival atmosphere, revelling in the craic.
Traditionally, he has prospered at Ballybrit, most notably through the 1980s, when he specialised in flat horses and those that made the transition to hurdling were genuine summer sorts such as Steel Duke and Pinch Hitter.
The increasing influence of the Arabs, Coolmore and the Aga Khan made it more difficult though and he made a conscious decision to steer towards the jumping game.
This year, he really fancied Road To Riches. He was expecting a big run from Curley Bill in the Hurdle too but he just failed to get in. The cards fell into place perfectly for Road To Riches though.
“I would never have dreamt of running him in the Plate because I always thought of him as winter horse, a graded horse. But Eddie (O’Leary) said to me after the race in Punchestown, that he was far better on the good ground.
“So straight away I thought it was a good idea but I thought he’d have top-weight. I went with very high hopes because when the weights came out and you had Kid Cassidy entered, that was a bonus. And then being able to lay your hands on a fella that can ride as well as Shane (Shortall).
“I feel so sorry for Ger (Fox, who missed out with a broken collarbone). He’s in the same league as Shane. He has a lot of experience and yet is still claiming. Having Shane as well as Kid Cassidy, it was kind of a double bonus.
You had seven off and six from Kid Cassidy as well, so I really felt if he handled the track he’d be hard to beat.”
That completed the clean sweep of the big four races at Galway.
The smile is beaming again, the chuckles regular, the conversation flowing. With the type of artillery at his disposal, he can’t wait to get going. He has young horses he thinks highly of too.
What’s more, he still has Paul Carberry. The stable jockey is sidelined with a fractured collarbone at the moment but Meade isn’t rushing to get him back just yet.
It is clear the way he talks about the 40-year-old that their relationship goes beyond the professional.
“He’s been with me so long now. We’re good friends. Paul is in a great place at the moment. He’s very happy. I haven’t seen him as happy in a long, long time. Unfortunately he’s a bit like china; when he hits the ground he gets broke up very easy.
“I think it’s just as well if he doesn’t come back too soon. He doesn’t have to. He knows himself there’s maybe two years left in it and he doesn’t need to be falling on fast ground and he’d be better off to mind himself.
“I wouldn’t think he’s as strong as he was because he can’t be but they seem to run better for him. He gets horses to jump and he gets them to do things without having to get after them at all.”
Meade will be at Tattersalls next week attempting to find more firepower for Carberry, Davy Condon, Fox and Nina Carberry, who is still available despite spending more time at Ballydoyle riding work for Aidan O’Brien.
He has had to temper his enthusiasm - “If you’re going to spend serious money on them nowadays you nearly have to have somebody standing beside you with the cheque book because there’s no future in buying expensive horses by yourself – but will be active.”
He is active as chairman of the Irish Racehorse Trainers’ Association too. He believes that the pre-race veterinary checks carried out at Galway, leading to the withdrawal of five horses, are an over-reaction to recent fatalities and actually call into question whether the authorities consider the trainers capable of making the correct decision for their charges.
“It’s a very tricky one to be honest with you. To bring any vet to look at a horse at the races and to say he can’t run because he’s a bit shuffly or bit this or a bit that… I’d say 20% of horses will pull out in the morning and they wouldn’t be 100% sound.
“If you trotted them up for a vet there in front you, he’d say he’s lame and can’t run. But he could pull out like that every day of the year and win five races. So it’s hard for the vet on the day to do that. What they’re saying to us now is we should bring veterinary certificates.
“I think to be honest if we’re fit to be trainers and we’re fit to hold a licence we should be entitled to make the call on whether they’re fit to run or not. I don’t think that it’s right that a vet can come along and tell us the horse can’t run.
“As long as we’re gonna race we’re gonna have fatalities. And I suppose on fast ground we’re gonna have more of them. But to me, it’s completely over the top altogether.”
He has no problem with the Turf Club and Department of Agriculture inspections to make sure that trainers are adhering to regulations relating to performance-enhancing substances.
IRTA members are angered however, by what they view as a Little Hitler syndrome, whereby they are treated almost as guilty from the moment the inspection begins.
“Unfortunately, the behaviour of some of the inspectors when they’ve come to the yards hasn’t actually been professional. They’re not treating people properly. We as trainers have no problem being looked at. We just don’t like being treated like criminals when they come to do it. I think 99% are 100% straight and that’s the way we’d like to be treated. Unfortunately some of these inspectors haven’t behaved that way. And that has annoyed us quite a lot.
“They’re also coming down on people with drugs and antibiotics that have been common in any trainer’s yard or farmer’s yard as long as we know, and would make no difference to anybody. And they’re coming down as if they were on cocaine or something. There’s no common sense.
“We certainly don’t want to see a situation in Ireland where performance-enhancing drugs could be used but I don’t think by any manner of means that it’s being done to any great degree. You can’t say for certain that any country is clean but I’d say we’re cleaner than a lot of places. I’d say it’s very minute, miniscule, if indeed there is any.”
That’s another day’s work though. It is the winding up of a new season that is exciting him now. He loves this time of year.
The horses have just come in and they’ll be hacking for the next couple of months. It’s only when they start to go quickly that they start picking up knocks.
But they’ll be running to their ability again and that means they’ll be winning. And you get the sense Meade will enjoy reminding people he is not a beaten docket.
“You’re actually rated on your past performance rather than what you’re doing now. If Aidan O’Brien – who’s the most brilliant trainer – doesn’t win a Derby every year, people think he’s having a bad year. Similarly, if a fella trains 20 winners a year and the next year he trains 25, he’s having a great year. But if he only trains 15 he’s only a bollocks!
“The same if you train 100 winners a year and you go back to training 70 it’s ‘oh my God, you’re man’s not going anywhere at all’. That’s the way it is. Jockeys are the same. It’s funny. It doesn’t last that long.
“You think you’re going well and suddenly you go a month or two without winners. People write you off very quick. You don’t become a bad trainer overnight.
“The longer you’re at it, the more you know about it, the more you can understand the horses. They’ll still bamboozle you by times but I have to think the more experience you have, the better you become.”