DICK Brabazon sits back into the chair in his living room in Rangers Lodge on Tuesday afternoon, musing about Gordon Bennett, both the horse who has won three for this year and the man he was named after.
James Gordon Bennett, he tells me, was something of a playboy in New York towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Bennett was the heir to a fortune and accordingly sought after by the young women of the city. An eccentric character, he engaged in the good life and was partial to facilitating such demand for him by throwing big parties now and again.
“At one particular party, Mr Bennett beckoned these two women from behind a door to come and join him,” Brabazon regales. “They went in behind the door only to see him pissing into the fireplace. One of the girls shouted, ‘Gordon Bennett!’
“And that’s how the phrase came about. The English use it all the time, ‘Oh bloody hell, Gordon Bennett!’ Del Boy used to say it in Only Fools And Horses. And I think that’s why our Gordon Bennett is always a short price. He has a very popular name. We’re not gambling people so it doesn’t matter but I think a lot people back him for his name alone.”
That and for other reasons, namely Gordon Bennett the horse has been pretty good this season, winning three times and running a huge race to finish fifth in the Bold Lad Handicap on Irish Champions Weekend. His latest success was a smooth win in the €50,000 Joe McGrath Handicap, giving Brabazon his biggest win as a restricted trainer thus far.
The four-year-old gelding doesn’t fully take after his namesake but he does have a unique character. He has always been a nervous beast and requires special attention. For instance, he can’t be left alone in a stable or “he’ll go berserk.”
So a special pen outside of his stable has been concocted using three large gates. The pen, and that he never leaves the side of Korbous, a 13-year-old who won five for Brabazon, now plays the role of a calming presence for his younger stablemate.
“We have to have Korbous at the races, we bring them up together and Korbous goes into the stable and Gordon looks over the door at him,” Brabazon explains.
“At the Curragh before the Bold Lad, it was bucketing down but we just threw a pile of rugs on him and he stood out there in the rain and couldn’t care less. He just looked over the stable door at Korbous.
“If anyone saw it they’d think it was madness. It’s not that we’re doing it for show, there is literally no way of doing it, you cannot put him into a stable, he goes berserk! He’s always been like that and I don’t know if he’ll change, but he is getting better in a lot of ways, I think he knows the routine now and that has helped him to perform better on the track.
“The temptation is to aim him at a big race, something like the Wokingham, he’s only a few pounds off that, but at the moment there’s just no way you could think about it because you’d arrive over and there’s no way you’d put him into a stable.
“As it happens, I think he could have everything he needs at the Curragh. The Joe McGrath win was big because it was over five furlongs and that gives us loads of options for next year. He has premier handicaps and listed races, and he could even run in a Group 3.”
In many ways Gordon Bennett is the perfect example of how a smaller trainer can extract the best out of a horse in ways a bigger yard simply couldn’t. But that’s not to say Rangers Lodge isn’t a big yard. In fact, it’s thriving now more than ever as a highly successful international pre-training operation.
Midway through this interview, Brabazon is visited by Norwegian-based owners who have just secured another yearling from the first day of the Orby Sale. The filly has been transported straight to Brabazon where she will learn the ropes before shipping out to Scandanivia.
There are also clients from Bahrain, Britain, France, Australia and Qatar among others, which is testament to a highly approved service worldwide.
Snow Fairy learned how to be a racehorse here. So did Exultant, formerly Irishcorrespondent, who finished third in an Irish 2000 Guineas for Mick Halford before becoming a champion in Hong Kong and earning over €8 million in prize money.
The wins from Rangers Lodge graduates in 2022 has soared over 60 so far this year. There was over 80 the year before, 70 the year before that, as some of the most respected trainers and breeders have availed of Brabazon’s team and services.
And yet, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether he was ever tempted to give training a real go, given his talent as a horseman has clearly been highly sought after and given he lives beside one of the best training centres in the world.
“Yeah, people often say that to me when we’ve had a nice winner,” he says jestfully. “I love the pre-training though. If I was a teacher, I’d be a primary school teacher, I wouldn’t be a university professor.
“You’re moulding horses into something that could be very special. We get a huge kick out of it when we see one of our horses go on and be successful. We’re not saying, ‘Oh if we had it, we could have won this or that.’
“Like we have great fun with Gordon and a few other runners but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out. It’s just a completely different mindset if you’re fully training.
“I don’t think people would send me these pre-trainers if I was fully training. They’d probably think, ‘Oh well, he’ll want to keep it,’ and there’s a conflict of interest but there’s no problem at all, they send me a horse, it goes to someone else, that’s the way we operate. I think it would change the whole dynamic of my business if I took out my full licence.”
Brabazon’s grandfather Cecil first came to Rangers Lodge in 1927. He was a champion amateur rider at the time but he’d go on to make his real name training horses, sending out multiple winners of the Irish Grand National and also classic winners. Richard Croker, son of the famous Boss Croker of New York, was one of his biggest owners. In 1949, Cecil broke new ground when he became the first Irish trainer to have a horse in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Brabazon’s father Aubrey famously rode Cottage Rake to win three Gold Cups and Hattons Grace to two Champion Hurdles, a sequence which his son proudly says has yet to be equalled despite the greats that have come since. In the same period, Aubrey rode two classic winners at home.
“I’d have been too young to remember dad as a jockey,” Brabazon says. “We never saw a clip of him riding and then finally someone uncovered Cottage Rake winning his first Gold Cup and it’s the only clip we have of him riding so we were delighted.
“I remember him more as a trainer. When he started training in 1960, his fame as a jockey sort of carried him through. His father was getting very old and shook so it was time for him to take over and the yard was very successful for a couple of years but dad was always a terrible businessman, he was as casual about everything, he never put the full package together.
“My aunt Lelia, who was a wonderful rider, they say she was better than dad, she said something to me one evening and I’ll never forget it.
“She said your grandfather could have been a great trainer and your dad could have been a great jockey. I thought to myself, they were great but I knew what she was getting at, that neither of them got the package.
“My grandfather again wouldn’t have been a businessman, wouldn’t have promoted the place, like he was champion trainer in the yard here with just 26 stables. He was never commercial.
“My dad certainly was never commercial. I knew what she meant by that. We had some very quiet times when I was growing up with only a handful of horses in the yard and it was a complete and utter struggle.
“It’s only looking back that I realise how lucky I was to see that because I could have come along all starry eyed and saying I’ll be a trainer, I’ll swagger around the paddock and I’ll be in the paper but I got a fair auld dose of the reality of it growing up and it’s a tough, tough game.
“Having said that about dad, he did partly find the Curragh Bloodstock Agency at the same time in 1948. The CBA was found in this very room we are sitting after a hunt ball, when Spencer Freeman prompted my dad and Paddy Harbord with the idea.
“The other thing founded in this room was the Co Kildare Motor Club, they had their first meeting in here. He loved motor racing.”
Dick’s eldest sister Sally married Bunny Cox but most of his other siblings came out of the industry, perhaps surprising given their family’s steep history in the sport. It was never going to be the case for Dick as he devoted himself to working from horses more or less his whole life.
“I remember when I was 16 or 17 and I was meant to go back to school for my final year and my mother saw what was happening and she said you’re not going to change now, off you go to Newmarket.
“I went off to Newmarket at the age of 17. I worked with Gavin Pritchard Gordan. He was married to my cousin Coral who was Michael Stoute’s partner afterwards. I absolutely loved it over there.
“I grew up loving the history of racing, that was always my thing and I still have a fair library of books upstairs. I remember my mother telling this story of when she first came over to visit me in Newmarket and that she couldn’t believe the first place I took her to was a graveyard. I brought her to see Fred Archer’s grave. I thought this is it! She wasn’t hugely impressed.”
After working abroad for a while, Brabazon eventually came home and put down some roots. He owned a small farm on the other side of the Curragh but a big break came when he was able to purchase the field that was cut off form the motorway. He sold the farm, put in a gallop and he was away.
His niece Heidi plays a big role in breaking in the horses now. She comes from an eventing background which is an added layer of experience. Besides her, it’s noticeable how many young people work at Rangers Lodge, with Brabazon always willing to take on students from various equine courses and colleges. Enthusiasm is the only thing you need for a job here.
A Curragh resident all his life, he has seen the training centre transition over the years, both positively and negatively in his opinion.
“The huge improvement in the last number of years is the investment in the gallops that Mrs Haefner has made,” Brabazon explains. “It’s just superb now and there are so many options for whatever you want to do.
“But I don’t think there are enough trainers on the Curragh right now, which is sad in many ways and you would have to be worried about the preservation of some of the yards around here. You’d be afraid of some yards falling into disrepair and the next thing there are houses being built on the land.
“I think we need another half dozen trainers around the Curragh. I think the IHRB might have to bite the bullet, put up barns and say to any young trainer who wants to train, come here, we’ll rent you a few stables and you start out.
“I’m sure they could come up with a business plan for that where you have four or five barns and communal muck heap. You wouldn’t need to charge astronomical rent and those trainers would paying Curragh fees.
“If a young trainer didn’t have to outlay a big capital, it would be a huge thing. Even with your own private place at home, you can only have one gallop that you need to refurbish. Every 15 minutes one of those two main gallops is harrowed and rolled. That’s superb maintenance. So if we want top-class ground, we might have to wait 10 minutes.
“If you want to train horses, this is the place to be, it’s a no brainer.”
As Brabazon points out, not many pre-trainers have use of the Curragh facilities and it’s a huge business advantage. To use his own analogy of comparing himself to a primary school teacher, this place is the Harvard of primary schools and that, coupled with his growing reputation for moulding stars, means Rangers Lodge is as busy and as vibrant as ever.