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RACE BEHIND THE SCENES: Let's hear it for the unsung heroes
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RACE BEHIND THE SCENES: Let's hear it for the unsung heroes
on 11 September 2020
There is a huge industry behind every racecourse winner. John O'Riordan talks to a few of the people behind the scenes who play a vital role in making Irish racing such a success

WHILE jockeys, trainers, and some higher-profile owners are familiar faces, there are many others behind the scenes who may not be instantly recognisable to the public.

The racing and breeding industry is vast, comprising many different professionals who each play a pivotal role in the ongoing development of a racehorse with a specific area of expertise. What we see at the racecourse or on television is merely the final stage in a long journey that begins even before a horse is born.


Firstly, we have the breeder, whose knowledge of families and pedigrees dictates what sire he or she may wish to send their mare to and may decide to stick with a proven stallion or take a chance with a first-season sire.

Stallion masters look after the mating for the breeders and the stud may take the mare in for foaling. Veterinary assistance is on hand if the need arises and from that day forward, veterinarians will play an important role in the horse’s life.

Farriers, equine dentists and chiropractors are also crucial, especially in the early stages when the young horse is still developing physically.

Sales companies and bloodstock agents come into the equation once the foal/yearling is old enough to pass through the ring. A consignor may buy a foal and keep it for a year before reselling it as a yearling. The new owner may then send the yearling to be broken and pre-trained before the horse is put into actual training. It is then, and only then, that the trainer, work rider and jockey become an integral part of the equation.

Close knit fraternity

Although a large industry employing thousands of people in this country, the racing and breeding fraternities are close knit. It sometimes seems as though everyone knows everyone else or at least someone who has worked with them. Whether you were born into the industry and worked in it all your life, or are a relative newcomer, there are no distinctions. It is not unheard of for someone with no background in racing/breeding to forge a successful career within the industry. Wherever you travel around the globe, there are Irish people who work in racing; men and women who look out for each other – be it with an offer of accommodation or prospective employment. Sometimes they may have little else in common aside from the love of horses.

‘A horse should be shod according to track conditions’

Tom Fahey - farrier

TOM Fahey has worked as a farrier for close on 40 years, having originally set up the business with his younger brother Paul. The brothers predominantly work around Carlow and Kildare, numbering three champion trainers among their clientele.

After initially serving a three-year apprenticeship with Bord na gCapall, Tom Fahey then spent six months at the Irish National Stud, before going on to study under Liam McAteer for a further two and a half years.

By the time Tom had completed his education, Paul was set to follow him into the same line of work. “As I was by then fully qualified, Paul was allowed become apprenticed to me,” said Tom.

“After his three years were up, we went into business ourselves and have been going strong ever since.”

The brothers work as freelancers with almost 90% of their work being with racehorses.

Two of their biggest clients are Willie Mullins and Jessica Harrington, whom they are likely to visit three or four times a week.

The Faheys split their time between those yards, with Paul going to the former and Tom the latter. Over the years, Tom has shod some of the leading names in Irish racing including Moscow Flyer, Sizing John, Jezki and Alpha Centauri.

Foot problems

A farrier will work closely alongside the trainer as horses tend to have numerous problems with their feet when they are in training. “Horses will wear light steel shoes at home but when they race they need lighter aluminium plates,” Tom explained. “With so many different gallops and surfaces in the country, what suits one horse may not necessarily suit another. Natural balance, egg-bar shoes or raised heels may be required to correct a persistent problem.”

The Kildare-born farrier is a strong believer in shoeing a horse to suit the particular surface it is racing on: “A horse should be shod according to the prevailing conditions on the track, and every track will be different. You can’t compare a straight five furlongs on a top track with a middle-distance race on firm ground on one of the summer tracks.”

Every Irish racecourse has its own farrier in case a horse needs to be reshod before a race – Tom Fahey worked as track farrier at Kilbeggan for six years.

With son Mark now a successful trainer, Tom also lends a hand at home when time allows.

Racing, like every walk of life, has faced testing times over the last few months. However, the ability of the industry to come together and really gel has made Fahey feel very proud: “I have been reminded of the old saying ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ in recent times. Everyone from ambulance crews, administration, medical and stable staff, jockeys, trainers etc have all done their bit. It was a huge achievement to keep racing going behind closed doors by all pulling together.”

‘My reward is seeing a treated horse compete at big meetings’

Stephen Laird - equine dentist

STEPHEN Laird is proof positive that once you decide to make a career in racing, the possibilities are endless. Having started out as a jockey and then head lad, the Co Down man later re-trained and became an equine dentist. The latter occupation has grown in popularity over the last 30 years, to the extent that dentistry is now viewed as an integral part of a horse’s care and management.


After spending the early years of his life either race-riding or working in racing yards, Laird then took a year out to travel in Australia. Returning home, he changed career direction for a time: “I went to work with my dad in our family business which is fireplaces and stoves.”

However, after the recession hit in 2007, Laird went back into racing, an industry that always provided opportunities. “I had known Gary Waters since my time in Britain and he was now a very successful equine dentist in South Africa,” said Stephen.

“Gary had been encouraging me to branch out into that relatively new field for some time so I decided to take the plunge.” As Laird had ridden in Britain previously, JETS (Jockey Employment Training Scheme) partly funded his studies.


Laird went on to establish his own practice although a couple of times a year he forms part of a team who visit the larger yards: “Gordon Elliott, Dermot Weld and Ado McGuinness are some of our bigger clients in Ireland, while I travel to Britain to work with Nicky Richards, Nicky Henderson and Olly Murphy among others.”

Working in such a large industry, Stephen has come into contact with many high-class horses “I find it especially rewarding watching those that I have treated progress through the ranks and compete at the big meetings,” he said. “At the 2017 festival, every winner on the opening day of Cheltenham had been treated either by myself or one of the team I worked with.” Indeed, that year’s Champion Hurdle winner, Buveur D’Air was one.


Aside from visiting training yards, Stephen also works closely with point-to-point handlers and pre-trainers. He treats young horses belonging to some of the Wexford point-to-point men such as Denis Murphy. Again, he derives particular satisfaction from seeing those horses win their maidens before making a name for themselves under rules.

In some cases, Laird may look after the same horses for a number of years; during their time between the flags in Ireland and later when they race under rules.

Giving horses the best start

Ian McCarthy – breaking\ pre-training

IAN McCarthy has developed a strong reputation for breaking and pre-training young horses. Although still a licensed jockey, the Galway native has concentrated more on working with young stock in recent seasons.

The habits yearlings develop in the early stages of life can have a profound impact on their careers as racehorses so getting off on the right foot is paramount.

McCarthy himself couldn’t have asked for a better education in racing; he was sent out to Dessie Hughes straight from RACE and remained very much part of the set up right up until the trainer’s untimely death.

“Dessie was a wonderful man and a great influence both on my career as a rider and development as a person.”

Ian saw at first hand how the Cheltenham-winning jockey\trainer brought along young horses, giving them the time and individual attention required. He rode his very first winner under rules for the Hughes stable and also the last before losing his claim.

After losing the claim, McCarthy went freelance, riding for well over 50 individual trainers in a given year. He went on to enjoy a very good working relationship with Ted Walsh who he also credits with being a strong influence on his career.


Racing opens up doors, giving people opportunities that they may not otherwise have had. In 2016, McCarthy had the privilege of representing his country when part of the annual Ireland v Australia jockeys’ challenge.

On a 12-day trip to the southern hemisphere, McCarthy absorbed plenty in relation to how the horses were trained and looked after. With McCarthy riding a winner, Ireland won the overall series and he returned home part of a victorious Irish international team.

In 2014, McCarthy built a new facility, Grangecoor Farm in Kildangan, purposely for the breaking, pre-training and sale of young racehorses.

From September onwards, yearlings are broken and pre-trained on the farm, then come summer time, the focus switches to National Hunt store horses. Eric Roche, brother of jockey Leigh, has been with McCarthy from day one, and a great bunch of work riders and loyal owners have helped McCarthy establish a name for himself.


Attention to detail is something McCarthy values above all else. With that in mind he is conscious of keeping the numbers down so each individual horse gets sufficient care. With 18 boxes in the yard, the focus is on doing the job right in every respect.

McCarthy explained: “Young horses need to be prepared for the physical and mental challenges that racing demands. It’s vitally important that they are not rushed and get proper handling. Confidence is a massive thing with young horses and once we build that it really helps them.”

From zero to hero in the bloodstock stakes

William Pilkington - breeder

WILLIAM Pilkington doesn’t have a racing or breeding background but has achieved some notable success in recent years. The high-profile sale of broodmare Xaloc at Goffs in 2016 provided an early boost to his fledgling breeding operation. Oak Leaf Stud is still relatively new to the industry but has made a mark in a relatively short period.

Love of animals

With his father earning a living as an electrician and mother a nurse, William is further proof that you don’t need to be born into racing/breeding in order to forge a career within the industry.

A love of animals was the catalyst for young William’s introduction to pedigrees and breeding. In 2008, Pilkington made a decision to attend the sales to buy a mare. He readily admits his knowledge of pedigrees was still in its infancy: “I remember asking Rolline O’Callaghan of ITM for some advice and her wise words were to look for as much blacktype on the page as I could.”

Although he came away from that sale empty handed, over the next few years Pilkington began to buy flat-bred mares, eventually hitting on Xaloc, who was bought for 5,500gns at the Tattersalls December Sale in 2013.

By now the young Offaly man knew what to look for: “She was from a very good family and was in foal to Born To Sea but the main attraction was that she had two unraced horses on the ground.” After one of her offspring won at Group 2 level, Pilkington subsequently sold the mare for €120,000 at Goffs February Sale in 2016.

Stakes winner

Most breeders are in the business either to make money or breed a stakes winner; William Pilkington has already achieved both. Shared Humour, a mare he purchased with some proceeds of the Xaloc sale went on to produce a Sea The Stars foal subsequently sold for €220,000.

However, it is a broodmare named Miss Azeza, bought in 2013, who he describes as “the queen”. Having produced Jash, a colt that went on to win at listed level and finish second in a Group 1, she has been the mainstay of the entire operation. That mare put him on the map as a breeder, one capable of producing blacktype stakes winners.

In just a few short years, William Pilkinton has established himself as a respected breeder within the industry despite starting off at what some may perceive as a huge disadvantage. It has never felt that way in his eyes: “I have only ever had positive experiences be it from owners, trainers or fellow breeders. Anywhere along the way when I needed advice it was offered to me unconditionally. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the men and women who work within the racing and breeding industry.”

Having already come so far in less than a decade, Pilkington has no intention of resting on his laurels. “We have a full-sister to Jash at the upcoming Goffs Foal Sale so hopefully she will be the next chapter in our story.”

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