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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Jim Bolger - breeding the best
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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Jim Bolger - breeding the best
on 30 October 2020
After a weekend of terrific success for his breeding enterprise, Daragh Ó Conchúir spoke to Jim Bolger on the methods behind his success

“On an evening about 98 years ago, the parents and grandparents of some of my favourite writers were pretending not to notice the Black and Tans.

“Robert and Úna Brennan were playing cards with Tommy and Geraldine Dillon in the sitting room of a house on Rathgar Avenue when they heard a military lorry stop outside.

“Úna saw a face looking through the window; the two couples did not panic but kept on playing though, as (Robert) Brennan wrote in his memoir, Allegiance; ‘None of us knew what cards we were playing.’ After fifteen minutes, the lorry drove away.

“‘Had any of us shown any signs of panic’, Brennan continued, ‘the raiders would have entered.’”

- Lucy McDiarmid, Irish Times (December 8, 2018)

“You know that saying about never making the same mistake twice? Well, I would. I’d always be ready to go back and make the same mistake.

- Jim Bolger, Racing Post (December 4, 2017)

THERE will never be another Jim Bolger. Barring catastrophe strikes horse racing and the entire industry collapses again, leaving enthusiasts to start once more from scratch, nobody will achieve what the leviathan of the industry has done.

Last Saturday, Bolger was the breeder of three juvenile stakes winners in three countries. Gear Up and Mac Swiney secured a Group 1 double in the Criterium and Futurity Trophy within five minutes of one another at Saint-Cloud and Doncaster. Shortly after, Flying Visit won the Group 3 Eyrefield Stakes at Leopardstown.

Seven days previously, another two-year-old, Poetic Flare added to the list of breeding achievements when claiming the Group 3 Killavullan Stakes, also at Leopardstown.

Poetic Flare and Kevin Manning win the Group 3 Killavullan Stakes - he could be a 2000 Guineas contender \ Healy Racing

Mac Swiney, Flying Visit and Poetic Flare are all trained by Bolger and run in the colours of his wife Jackie. The Oylegate native only began breeding as a means of sourcing stock to race but the process has ensured a level of influence on bloodstock and racing that is immeasurable.

The Bolger fingerprints are everywhere, most ironically making his competition harder to beat. He bred and trained Teofilo to an unbeaten champion two-year-old career before injury prevented the colt from attempting to translate that into classic glory.

That success and the Irish Derby-winning exploits of Soldier Of Fortune, reared at Redmonstown Stud before being sold to Coolmore, rewarded his support of a young Derby-winning sire who was quickly losing favour after his first crop had failed to fire. New Approach quickly followed from the third crop, a champion two- and three-year-old who conquered Epsom.

New Approach and Kevin Manning (green) wins the Derby from Tartan Bearer in 2008 \ Healy Racing

Galileo is now the most successful Group/Grade 1-winning producer ever and long removed from the budget of the man who made him. Teofilo is the damsire of both Mac Swiney and Flying Visit, and was the sire of another Group 1 winner in France last Saturday, the pillar-to-post Prix Royal-Oak victor Subjectivist.

Suffice to say, the boss of Glebe House and Redmonstown has left his mark, and continues to do so.

He has been trading in the faintly fantastic for decades, but it would be hard to find a purer encapsulation of the Bolger enterprise – in the sense of business model and thinking outside the box – than Saturday.

Jim with Teofilo in his racing days

Conviction

He isn’t just willing to look at things from a different angle. He is enthusiastic about it and there never seems to be a wavering in conviction, a deviation from the chosen course, regardless of unforgiving climates or a dip in fortunes.

Appropriately for a man described as an expert of genetics – “I wouldn’t say that, Daragh” – family is important and that Jackie, son-in-law and enduring stable jockey Kevin Manning, and daughter Úna are central to the success accentuates the satisfaction of what has been accomplished. The Bolgers’ other daughter Fióna isn’t directly involved but the life has naturally influenced the celebrated poet, as evidenced by her poem Geometry of a Racecourse Gallop, about the construction of her father’s gallop.

Jim Bolger and Kevin Manning have been a powerful team for decades / Carolinenorris.ie

It is fitting too that the anchor horse of last week’s achievement was named after one of Bolger’s most revered patriots, a martyr who died after 74 days on hunger strike. Sense of place and identity, as a man of Wexford and Ireland, are pivotal to his being.

Irish independence and the struggle for it was very present when he was born on Christmas Day of 1941.

Taking a backward step would be abhorrent to Jim Bolger. So would following the crowd if it felt wrong. The results have been astounding.

***

There are many reasons why last Saturday is up there with one of Bolger’s most enjoyable in racing, but while such focus was on the breeding element, it was the track achievement that he remained directly involved in that excited him.

“It’s the racing really. That’s what we’re here for. It’s lovely when it all comes together, the breeding decisions, and the husbandry and all that, they’re proven correct and the animal achieves on the racecourse. That’s where the satisfaction comes from.”

It is remarkable how consistently fruitful his creativity has been with regard to breeding stock.

“Ah sure our situation is ridiculous, trying to compete with the richest people in the world,” he says, chuckling at the incongruity of it. “It’s something nobody should ever attempt!”

But backing his own judgement, even as it seemed at odds with the consensus, never bothered him. Neither did getting it wrong. His full-on support of Last Tycoon that left more than a few bruises, did not deter him from throwing his chips on Galileo at the bloodstock roulette table. He is the master innovator.

Mac Swiney was the first blacktype winner to feature Galileo inbreeding, being by the champion’s son New Approach and out of Teofilo mare Halla Na Saoire. Bolger had previous in this regard, Parish Hall becoming only the second Group 1 winner to possess Sadler’s Wells inbreeding.

There is a train of thought in America that increasing inbreeding is, among other things, contributing to more injuries. Indeed, the Jockey Club imposed a cap on book sizes for stallions in their jurisdiction, to address a concern about “the narrowing of the diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool”. Bolger doesn’t dismiss concerns but is sceptical, noting that there is no control of mating in the wild.

“To have the inbreeding that close (with Mac Swiney), yeah, the purists would frown on that but I think a lot of people forget that a sire called Phalaris owns two thirds of the stud book, and his dam (Bromus) is inbred 2x3.

“This horse now, his conformation is perfect. His temperament is perfect. He seems to have a fair level of ability and he’s very sound. So there is no sense of repercussion where he’s concerned with his inbreeding.”

The Futurity was Mac Swiney’s sixth run. He has won half of those, but below-par efforts in the Tyros and National Stakes allowed the Futurity Stakes victor to go off at 12/1 in Doncaster.

“You’d like to see them show a good level of ability if they do look like Derby horses. You want to be winning with them as well but I don’t beat myself up when something goes wrong and they don’t win. But his two defeats to date would be my problem, not the horse’s problem.

“Nowadays, there’s a rule there that you have to state if you know of anything that may have caused the horse to run as he did, that it has to be reported. I wasn’t sure and I’m still not sure why but I do know that it has nothing to do with the ground. He’s a terrific mover and he’s very, very light on his feet. He just didn’t fire on those two days.”

The final-furlong acceleration that enabled him to forge clear and leave a high-class field for dead at Doncaster was impressive.

“It was, and the first couple of furlongs, where they were tracking 39 miles per hour in that going, they didn’t hang around. It was a really true-run race. Then the horse on the outside (Baradar) took it up two down, and he made sure, that whatever was going to win it was going to have to pull out plenty.”

And pull out Mac Swiney did, impressively. He could not have exhibited more as a Derby prospect

“I’d be very confident that he’d stay well.”

The son of New Approach gave his breeder and conditioner good vibes early. And we know that because he gave him Terence MacSwiney’s name. He hasn’t gone the route of the Irish patriot too often, which is indicative of their sacred standing in his eyes.

There is just once he can recall, Father Murphy, named after Fr John Murphy, the curate tortured and executed for his role in the most successful uprising of the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford. A three-year-old maiden winner at Fairyhouse in 1999, the colt did not materialise into the specimen Bolger had hoped for. So we know the promise Mac Swiney was showing.

“He was broken and riding in late October and he was cantering away up to Christmas. I knew at Christmas time that he had potential. He was doing everything I asked of him and doing it very easily. He had a terrific temperament and great action. He looked like a horse with a great future.

“For a number of years, I was keeping my eye out for a horse that would do Terence justice. As it got nearer then to his anniversary, I said, ‘I’ll park that now and I’ll wait for the anniversary.’ It’s a fairytale really.”

He hardly targeted the Futurity Trophy specifically to coincide with the 100th anniversary of MacSwiney’s death the following day though, did he? Wasn’t it just the obvious place for the horse to go?

“It was a bit of both really. He could have gone to France and run in either of those Group 1s there. One of them was at a mile, the other at a mile and a quarter.

“Then when Poetic Flare was a bit late arriving on the scene, and he had only won at Leopardstown the week before, did it really well and looking very much like my Guineas horse for next year, I didn’t want to set him back by asking him to race on soft ground over the mile at Doncaster. Mac Swiney fit the bill and he didn’t let us down.”

The human MacSwiney was always a hero, because of his sacrifice. There was a familial link too, that made him feel like almost an acquaintance.

“He ignited the whole movement at that time and garnered the publicity around the world which was a great advantage as well. You had this little island taking on a very powerful empire and it looked like a very unequal struggle. What he did would have encouraged his compatriots greatly.

“I have always been aware of where we came from and how it came about. And I grew up in that sort of environment. My father (Walter) had been active in the War of Independence. While, like most of those people, he didn’t talk much about it, we got the message.

“I had an uncle who was in prison in Cork Gaol and Terence MacSwiney was in prison with him. They became friends at that stage.”

Jim Bolger receiving a Connolly’s Red Mills and The Irish Field Breeder Of The Year award from Niamh Connolly \ Carolinenorris.ie

Renowned activist

The uncle in question was Robert Brennan, an Irish teacher from Wexford town, who married Walter’s sister Úna, herself a renowned activist during the Easter Rising and War of Independence and one of the very few women sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He went on to be the first Irish ambassador to America, was also a founder member of Irish Press with Éamon De Valera and director of broadcasting at RTÉ.

Their daughter, Bolger’s first cousin, was the famous writer and journalist Maeve Brennan, who inherited her skills from her parents, her mother once a columnist in The Echo, where Robert also worked before going on to have a long career in media and writing. It clearly runs in the family. Roddy Doyle, of The Commitments and The Snapper fame, is a cousin of Bolger’s.

“When I came to Dublin, I used to visit him on a Sunday morning for five or six years. I was only one removed from Terence MacSwiney at that stage! It wasn’t so much that he wanted to speak about (those times), but he would answer all the questions.”

And the opportunity was availed of.

“Definitely.”

Providing history lessons to the British media in the aftermath of Mac Swiney’s triumph was an added bonus that appealed to the Bolger’s underrated mischievousness, but more so to his sense of the injustices perpetrated in Ireland.

All of what made him the master of Coolcullen, can be found in this past.

***

The winter will feel shorter with two classic prospects to look after. Poetic Flare put himself into that frame just a week after being pitched into the Dewhurst following a 201-day lay-off from his debut maiden triumph at Naas.

“It was an unfair ask really but he ran very well in the Dewhurst and just tired a little bit in the last furlong and a half. He was right on their heels with a furlong and a half to go before his lack of fitness checked in and he wasn’t able to give anymore. But he recovered very quickly and won well at Leopardstown.

“The year was running out. I knew there was a group race in him. I didn’t want to bring him to France. I could have waited another week with him to go there but I felt it was better to keep him at home.

“He’s a taller horse (than Mac Swiney) and he has a bit of furnishing to do. That was the reason he didn’t run all summer. After he won his maiden, then we had the lockdown. He began to grow at that stage and he grew two and a half inches during the year. I probably left him too long. That’s why I was chasing the fitness a bit at the end of it.”

The pair are contrasting characters as well as physical specimens. Poetic Flare will need his energy to be expended in a more coordinated fashion than Mac Swiney.

“Mac Swiney has been really thriving over the last six or eight weeks. He’s getting rounder every day. I don’t think he’ll get a lot taller but he will get stronger. He’ll put on more muscle.

“He’s very sensible and laidback. He’ll ride out for a couple of weeks and we’ll let him down slowly. He’ll be turned out then until the second week of January. He’ll come in at night of course but will be out during the day.

Mac Swiney and Kevin Manning land the Group 1 Vertem Futurity \ Healy Racing.

Exhuberant

“Poetic Flare is a more exuberant horse. You couldn’t dream of letting him out so he’s going to have to ride out. We have a treadmill as well and he can alternate between that and riding out to give him a change of scenery.”

Coronavirus has had an impact but Bolger praises HRI and IHRB for how they handled the considerable challenge they faced and continue to face, and most of all for ensuring that racing has been able to take place. He hasn’t been to the track himself however, since the June 23 resumption.

“I don’t need to go. I’m told the atmosphere isn’t great. Úna is enjoying doing what she does. Ger Flynn and John Griffin are very good at what they do, so it’s all working out very well, and I don’t think it would be any better if I were there.”

The annual Hurling For Cancer match was another casualty of Covid-19 but an online campaign had an impact.

“People are very good. People who have been going every year are still contributing and the money is still coming in. Normally we don’t close it off until the Leopardstown meeting at Christmas so there is still an opportunity for people to donate.”

He made a popular appearance on social media himself during the initial lockdown, participating in the raw egg challenge that proved too much for many.

“Raw eggs were no problem to me. Anybody that was hurling when I was hurling, if you couldn’t manage a raw egg you wouldn’t get picked anyway!”

The past pertaining to the present. It is the James S Bolger way.

To make a contribution to Hurling For Cancer go to the following link https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/hurlingforcancer.

Stephen Hunt, Mary Fanning, Jim Bolger and Anne Doyle at the Hurling For Cancer match \ Carolinenorris.ie

Drugs: ‘It is not a level playing pitch’

DRUG cheats are being allowed to get away with nefarious training methods by inadequate IHRB testing, Jim Bolger believes.

Doping seems endemic in American racing, an FBI investigation leading to the arrest of trainer Jason Servis eight days after his star Maximum Security had won the inaugural €20m Saudi Cup. Jorge Navarro was also arrested. Few expressed surprise.

Just last week, it emerged that Hall of Fame conditioner Bob Baffert had incurred an astonishing 28th doping violation with Gamine’s second failed test of the year.

Bolger isn’t inclined to comment on other parts of the world but he is adamant that not enough is being done to catch trainers medicating their horses with banned substances.

“I am concerned with the lack of policing in racing. It’s not up to the mark, it’s not up to scratch.”

In Ireland or globally?

“In Ireland principally. As you know, I’m on record as saying that I don’t interfere in the internal affairs of a foreign country. All I can do there is make a broad comment on some of the other countries, that it’s not what it should be.”

So in Ireland, is it the lack of testing? Are we not being robust enough?

“All I will say is it is not a level playing pitch at the moment.”

So I can read between the lines from that?

“Yeah.”

There doesn’t seem to be enough testing done?

“Obviously not the right kind anyway.”

For the right type of medication?

“There’s a rule book there, certain things are forbidden and they are being used and it needs to be dealt with.”

For fairness of the game.

“For integrity. The Turf Club are going on about it for years, integrity, but it’s not up to scratch at the present time.”

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