EARLIER this year, I celebrated two decades working at Friarstown Stables for trainer Kevin Prendergast. Although that famous yard is currently on the market, the boss has no immediate plans to retire from racing. While it will certainly be the end of an era, if and when we eventually leave Friarstown, hopefully there are still a few years left in us yet.

Growing up in Dublin, I was introduced to horses through the older lads in my locality. They used to keep ponies and trotting mares and us younger boys would help look after them. The Smithfield Market held a horse fair on the first Sunday of every month, so a bunch of us from Clondalkin would head down through Ballyfermot and the Phoenix Park. It was great craic in those days; something to look forward to for weeks in advance.

As my interest in horses was well known, a career guidance teacher in secondary school pointed me in the direction of a FÁS run course in Co Sligo. Similar to RACE, the programme was partially run by trainer Michael McElhone out of his own yard. Although the course only ran for a short period, it was a fantastic initiative that helped get many young people out of Dublin.

I applied for and was accepted onto that course; spending a work placement down with Tim Doyle in Moyne, before returning to Sligo. By that time, Michael (McElhone) had got a few mores horses, so I became stable apprentice. While I probably had upwards of 50 rides, I rode a few placed horses but never managed a winner.

In 2002, I came down to the Curragh to work for Christy Roche. It was a great yard to work in and I really enjoyed the short time that I spent there. However, as the National Hunt horses went on a break for the summer, it traditionally got very quiet at that time of the year, so Christy sent me over to Kevin Prendergast. That was in 2003 and I have been here ever since.

Having gone into Kevin’s as a stable lad, I decided against renewing my licence. At that time, Declan McDonogh was stable number one, while Chris Hayes was emerging through the apprentice ranks. We also had excellent riders such as Michael Hussey, Christy Geoghegan, Padraig Beggy, Brian Hughes and Damian Murphy in the yard. In the years that followed, Willie Supple, Sam James, Bryan Cooper, Paddy Kennedy and Gary Halpin would come along. Stephen Craine, who had recently retired from riding, was assistant trainer.

Despite never pursuing a career in the saddle, I got great satisfaction from both riding work with those jockeys and getting to sit on some high-class horses. Going racing was something that I really loved as well - if one of the horses I looked after wasn’t running, I’d be the first to volunteer to take a spare.

Padraig “Buzzer” Purcell, who was travelling head lad when I started, was very good to me. Walayef was the first really good horse that I remember in Kevin’s. She had won the Round Tower Stakes as a two-year-old the previous season but then went on to win the Athasi Stakes and run in the 1000 Guineas during my first year.

Around 2004/2005, I was promoted to second travelling head lad. Essentially that meant that I went racing with horses when Buzzer was at another meeting, or on holidays. In 2006, we had a fantastic season, highlighted by Miss Beatrix winning both the Moyglare Stud Stakes and Goffs Million.

Declan McDonogh was champion jockey that season, while it was also the middle leg of Chris Hayes’s three champion apprentice wins. Mustameet, a horse I rode out at home regularly, won five races that year, as well as finishing fourth to Dylan Thomas in the Irish Champion Stakes. That December, Buzzer and I got to accompany Mustameet on the trip of a lifetime to run in the Hong Kong Mile at Sha Tin.

Moved up

The following year, Buzzer left and I was moved up to become travelling head lad. One of my earliest overseas trips that season was to bring Haatef (2000) and Miss Beatrix (1000) to Newmarket for their respective Guineas. While neither proved good enough on those occasions, Haatef gave me a memorable day when winning the Diadem Stakes under Richard Hills at Ascot later that autumn.

Mores Wells finished fifth in the Irish Derby that year, before taking me back to Sha Tin for the Hong Kong Vase 12 months later. During those peak years, as well as having up to 80 horses in training, we were also very fortunate to have some brilliant owners. The likes of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, Lady O’Reilly and Norman Ormiston would have had large numbers with us.

Over the last decade, despite gradually reducing in numbers, the boss has shown that given a good horse, he is still more than capable of producing results. In 2013, La Collina was a Group 1 winner in the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown. Either side of that, Vastonea won the highly competitive Topaz Mile on two occasions at the Galway Festival.

The win of Awtaad in the 2016 Irish 2000 Guineas was really special on a personal level. I rode the horse out at home every day, so to witness him win a classic was incredible. We were all delighted for the boss, as many people had written him off because of his age, so to prove that he could still do it at the very highest level was heartwarming. It was certainly my most enjoyable day racing in all the years that I have been involved in the sport.

Three years later (2019), Madhmoon almost did the impossible when he was just beaten in the Epsom Derby by Anthony Van Dyck. While a lot of respected judges questioned the colt’s stamina, the boss never had any doubts that he would stay. Mehnah was another very decent Sheikh Hamdan-owned filly in recent years, although injury prevented her from fulfilling her undoubted potential.

I took over as head lad three years ago, while Johnny Sullivan became Travelling head man. At the present time, only the two of us and Sean “Mull” Fitzpatrick, Jeremy Harley and Kevin himself remain in the yard. I’d like to think that there might be a few more years left yet.

The boss continues to train winners, with Miracle Nation and Profit Refused winning their maidens this season. I am enjoying the work as much as I ever did, but now married to Michelle and with two young daughters, Faylinn and Fauna, I appreciate having more time to spend with family.

Dessie Cummins was in conversation with John O’Riordan