“If ever a protégé mirrored his mentor then Ken does with John Oxx and I can pay him no greater compliment.”
THE messages of goodwill cascaded upon Ken Condon in the minutes, hours and days that followed Romanised’s comprehensive victory in the Irish 2000 Guineas.
An avid reader when it comes to the exploits of the greats of Irish and British racing, the 43-year-old from Co Cork is honoured, and understanding the enormity of it all, humbled that he is “stitched into the fabric” of racing just a little bit, for all eternity.
“It won’t pass me by,” asserts Condon on a sunny day at Ridge Manor Stables. “I’m very cognisant of it. There’s been some really top-class horseman that maybe trained thousands of winners that mightn’t have had the opportunity to win a classic, mightn’t have had the right horse for it, so we’re very grateful. As I said on the day, we’re very lucky he walked through our door.”
That humility is in evidence throughout a lengthy conversation, punctuated briefly but hilariously by the request for dinner (“ask Mammy”), face-making through a glass door and infectious giggling of daughters Olivia (6) and Emily (4).
The messages he received were from throughout the industry and from home, in Ballyhea, where he developed his love of horses from his mother’s hunting background.
He still hooks up with the Duhallow Hunt pack when he can. He was a good enough eventer to represent Ireland at junior level but racing had taken grip of him even then.
As Lyons indicated in his blog, there was genuine pleasure for a good guy who has earned everything he has achieved. Yet many of the messages were from colleagues operating at a similar level to him.
The tone was one of thanks. He spoke immediately afterwards about the people that were involved in the industry doing their best with what they had, dreaming of the chance to prove they could deliver. It was a touch of class and it struck a chord
BIT OF HOPE
“A lot of the underlying feeling has been how good it is for the game and a few of the lines have been ‘It gives us all a bit of a boost and a bit of hope.’ I’m just representative of a lot of people that are in the industry, some very good horsemen and riders, like I said on the day. I don’t know where that came from, but it was important to acknowledge it.”
The competitor in him wants to scale the heights and there is absolutely no way the appetite has been whetted. To win a classic was why he took out a licence at 27, thinking he knew it all but realising very quickly that he knew very little. But he is pragmatic about trying to beat the best in the world.
Indeed, he views the opportunities in that. Achievement in this arena has a higher value, literally so if you are interested in availing of the increasing markets as he has done in the past to keep the business ticking over.
“You wouldn’t be shouting it from the rooftops but it was a goal of mine from the very outset to win a classic. It’s such a select club. You feel like you’ve left your mark when you do that. They’re so rare and you’d be very respectful of getting it, and very lucky to have a horse of that calibre.”
Robert Ng became connected to the yard through Condon’s friendship with David Cox, who was prepping three yearlings for the Hong Kong-based Singaporean billionaire – one of which was subsequent four-time group victor, Success Days. Condon was invited to have a look and liked what he saw.
Romanised was one of another set of three-year-olds sent to him by Ng in September 2016. The owner had initiated discussions to buy him from breeders Gerry and Monica Aherne while the Holy Roman Emperor colt was in utero, completing the deal when he was a week old.
This was because his dam, the Indian Ridge mare Romantic Nature, was a half-sister to Designs On Rome, the former Pat Flynn charge that earned iconic status in Hong Kong. Broken by Aidan Howard and his team that includes Barry Cash and Simon Torrens, Romanised arrived in Ridge Manor with a good report card.
He created a good impression at home and was pitched into a maiden at Navan despite having been asked to do very little. When he won that, having done five half-speeds beforehand, they began to dream.
“We don’t normally run them off that unless they’re very good. If they win first-time out, they’re normally stakes horses.”
Romanised at Navan last year (RIGHT)
There have been 14 winners from that maiden and another 26 place finishes.
“Like an underage fella in hurling, he probably wasn’t ready physically for that grind in a Group 1 (in the Phoenix Stakes). I think he was just putting his hand up at home.
“I remember after the Phoenix, and normally with the resources we’d have, you’d be delighted to be beaten three lengths but I was very disappointed, and that’s only because of the in-built expectation with this horse. His homework has always been of a very good order but maybe in hindsight, when I see how he’s developed and matured both mentally and physically over the winter and the spring, maybe he was just that little bit too raw and not strong enough.”
He cast aside some of the coltish tendencies he had displayed at the Curragh when second to Masar in the Solario Stakes at Sandown last September and that form has been well advertised by the winner already, regardless of what he does in Epsom today.
He was entered for Newmarket but while he had his summer coat throughout the winter and met his targets, he didn’t sparkle beforehand. Instead he reappeared in Naas when he was very keen and got hampered at a crucial stage. The Tuesday before the Irish Guineas, they took Romanised to the Walsh’s Hill trial gallop. With regular work rider Guillieme on board, he found another level.
“People didn’t have to say much. Niall (McCullagh) and Shane (Foley) were at the work. It’s a good sign when there’s not much talking. We all knew that it was nice and what we were all looking for but hadn’t been there in the weeks before.
“It’s funny, it’s when you’re debriefing sometimes, or you’re looking for something there’s more chat. But here, it was felt and there was visual there. So there was nothing really to say.”
Three factors that were unknown prior to the Curragh were faster ground, the mile and the very strong pace that was likely. They all proved the making of him as he went all the way to the line, prevailing by two and a quarter lengths from U S Navy Flag.
“It all fell into place and there were no excuses. The Curragh is one of the fairest tracks in the world and there was a very strong pace… He just made steady, relentless progress. Maybe inside the two pole I said ‘Jeez, this horse could be placed’ and then you come to the furlong pole and the last 150 yards. He was drawing away and you get that rush of adrenaline, it must be like scoring a goal in an All-Ireland final or winning a golf major. You can’t describe it. It’s just a magic feeling.”
Condon’s journey in racing started with a letter sent to John Oxx, who answered and offered him a role. After six months, he travelled, hungry for information before returning to play a major role at Currabeg at a time when Sinndar was the star of the show. He will never forget the prized double at Longchamp, as Sinndar won the Arc and Namid won the Prix de l’Abbaye.
“I was told very early on if you wanted to make anything of yourself, work for the best. The first summer job I had while at school was with Alan Lillingston at Mount Coote Stud at home. His son Luke runs it now. I had a season at Coolmore, then the Niarchos family in Normandy and from there then, Lane’s End in Kentucky. They were all the top places and then obviously John Oxx doesn’t need any introduction.”
One thing learned at Currabeg?
“It’s repetition really. It’s having a system and trusting it, even when things aren’t flowing the way you’d like. You don’t change, you don’t start second guessing. By all means tweak it here and there, maybe at season’s end. That’s what all the great operators do.
“How do we make this a shade better? But our basic system, or way you train, if it’s been successful for you and you’re comfortable with it, stick with it. You trust that and you trust the people. That’s what I learned.”
He took out a training licence in 2002 and that might have been at the forefront of his mind as the winners were not as regular as he had become accustomed to in the last 12 months. But this was what had brought him seven group races prior to the Guineas thanks to Norman Invader, Marvada, Rise High and Success Days, and a number of other listed contests from when Porto Marmay won the Tipperary Stakes in 2007.
What he doesn’t have right now is the durable, hardened handicapper that will run 10 or 15 times a season, and triumph on a couple of occasions when back to a workable mark.
Think Strait Of Zanzibar and Bold Thady Quill (both stakes winners), think Little Arrows and In Salutem. Instead, the two-year-olds dominate his string of 30 and in the current climate, it is more likely that they will be sold given the demand for the horse with Irish form.
An education wasn’t all he picked up at Currabeg of course. It was there he met Pauline Ryan and she became an invaluable partner, in business and in life.
A former winner of the Ladies Derby, Pauline rode nine winners on the flat and 18 under National Hunt rules, primarily in bumpers, winning for Jessica Harrington, Dessie Hughes, James Leavy, and her future husband. She was a fast-finishing second on Sophocles for Leavy in the 2007 Cheltenham Champion Bumper behind the Barry Geraghty-ridden Cork All Star.
“Pauline is a huge part of the operation. She’s a very good rider and a very good judge. It’s great to be able to have those conversations every day about horses and where we’re going and what we can do with them.”
Success Days is enjoying some time off after his early and busy start to the year when he went to Australia take on Winx in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes in Randwick. For the first time since 2006, the ground at the meeting in question did not have soft or heavy in the description so they knew their fate before togging out.
They were brilliantly looked after by the authorities however and the trip was heavily subsidised to get him over. Joao Moreira minded the six-year-old, who came back off the plane to finish second in the Mooresbridge Stakes.
“What a fantastic horse to come back and do that. He deserves a little break now. He’s been entered in the International at Derby weekend, the Group 3 he was second in last year. He escapes his Group 2 penalty, but it could well be that he sits that one out and we may leave him for the Royal Whip. He’ll tell us but he certainly owes us nothing. He’s been a wonderful horse to have.”
Condon namechecks Man Of The Sea, Isle Of Shadows, Sundance Star and Usra as four of his charges he is optimistic about, while Mamba Noire kept pretty good company last year. Of course it will be difficult to get into the winner’s enclosure but he relishes the challenge against the big yards.
“Racing is something we’re the best in the world in and I wouldn’t like to see that change. The top people are household names, they’ve set the bar very high and it’s up to everybody else to try and do what they can to get their own niche.
“It’s extremely competitive but if you do have a nice horse that wins here, he’s a very valuable commodity on the world stage, be it Hong Kong, Australia, America or elsewhere and that goes a long way to keeping people in the game, coming back for more.
“Think of all the ancillary businesses that are associated with this huge industry. Breeders, sales companies - the shop window is the racecourse and we are leading the way.
“The people that have loads of horses, big yards, they deserve to get them. They have them for a reason and more power to them. All we can do is do the best with the ammunition we have and let everything else take care of itself. It won’t keep me awake at night.
“Don’t worry, there’s huge ambition there and I’m delighted to have the classic on the CV but we’re doing it long enough and we’re based in reality. You do the best you can with what you have. Of course I wouldn’t be averse to it if I got a call offering me a load of horses but I’ll leave that end of it look after itself.”
He praises the improvements to the racing programme with incentives such as the Plus 10 and the auction series’ that proves attractive for owners to invest at a lower end. ITM are working hard he maintains but thinks there is merit in them putting trainers of his ilk in a room with some major potential investors on something like a Guineas or Derby weekend in a bid to foster relationships. Encouraging a significant growth in syndicates is something he’d like to see too.
Right now though, all the talk is about Romanised. The Sussex Stakes and a first pop at the older horses might be in the pipeline. So could a step up in trip. For now though, it’s a return to Royal Ascot and the St James’s Palace Stakes.
“The new challenge now is can you replicate (what he did on Saturday)? Even if you replicate it, will that be good enough? If you replicate a performance, you’re almost standing still and if you’re standing still you’re going backwards. His contemporaries will be improving month by month. He’ll have to find a bit of improvement.
“That was by far a career high but he probably had his optimum conditions as we’ve learned now. He’s gonna have to go back into fast work next Tuesday. From our point of view, we have to create the environment the best we can that allows him to prosper and go forward.
“But I’m a big believer too that humans can only take so much responsibility on board. The horse will have to as well. I won’t bottle work schedules or anything like that. You can’t mind him. There’s no room for that.
“I remember reading somewhere that Jim Bolger said ‘A good horse will never let you down.’ I’d be a believer in that. They have to do the work, they have to be tough, they have to be hard. It will be interesting to see has he the temperament, has he the physique, can he maintain his form.
“Can he improve on it? He has to drive on and make that progress. He’s going to have to face the work and in fairness to him, he has so far.”
Just like his trainer.