THE ups and downs of life as a trainer at the lower end of the spectrum, are typified by the rollercoaster ride Johnny Levins has had to endure over the past 12 months.
Currently sitting just outside the top 10 numerically in the Irish Flat Trainers’ Championship, with a creditable 11 winners, the Curragh-based handler has a further four on the all-weather.
However, rewind back just 11 months and one is faced with a very different picture. Winnerless on the flat after nearly nine months of the calendar year, it was not until Tai Sing Yeh struck at Roscommon in late August that the stable’s fortunes finally turned.
A Naas maiden win for Carlton Banks and a pre-Christmas Dundalk success for the ever-reliable Prisoners Dilemma, saw the trainer finish the year with a modest total of three.
“There is no doubt that last year was very tough and being honest it really affected me mentally,” Levins said. “It got very scary, as the realisation crept up on me, that I may not be able to sustain it any longer, as the financial side of the business was really starting to struggle.
“I knew there was nothing wrong with the horses, as all the tests were clear but they just weren’t firing.”
Perhaps somewhat ironically, Johnny Levins’ horses weren’t actually running that badly last year. In a cruel twist of fate, the trainer found himself standing in the runner-up spot on 14 different occasions.
In a sport where the smallest of margins can often prove the difference between victory or defeat, there were instances, when just a head or neck separated Levins from that elusive, much sought after winner.
Even if just a couple of those had managed to get their head in front, it would have made for a very different outlook.
However, as in so many walks of life, racing is about results and if you aren’t regularly training winners, you can quickly become forgotten. Trainers tend to be optimists by nature; counting down the cold winter months in anticipation of the promise a new turf season brings come March.
For Levins, the start of the 2021 flat campaign couldn’t come soon enough. The usual suspects had run well at Dundalk over the winter months, while Whirling Dervish was a welcome winner over jumps in early March.
Big runs from Shabaaby and Muraahin in the early weeks of the new campaign were greeted with optimism but as the season progressed that sentiment gradually turned to frustration.
“We started the season really well with placed horses and I thought it was just a matter of time before they started winning but they just kept getting placed,” Levins recalls.
It would be another four months before Tai Sing Yeh stopped the rot when winning at Roscommon in August.
While confident in his own abilities as a trainer, it was another worry that kept Levins awake at night.
“I knew that if we stuck to our system things would eventually turn but the real question was how long we could wait from a financial perspective,” he says.
A second winner came via Carlton Banks, who fulfilled the promise he had shown on his previous start, when shedding his maiden tag at Naas on the last day of October. Then, just as the year was coming to a close, Prisoners Dilemma repeated his win of the previous season, when taking a seven-furlong handicap at Dundalk in mid-December.
Although disappointed to finish a challenging campaign with just three winners on the flat, Levins took solace from the fact he never felt alone.
“We aspire to have a family atmosphere in the yard, and that includes our staff and our owners,” he says.
“The one positive I took from last season was I always felt I had people in my corner. My staff never questioned our ability and my owners were always there for me at the end of the phone; with kind and positive words. My parents John and Breda, and girlfriend Alex, were also a constant source of encouragement.
“To be honest, without that support I’m not sure I would still be training. We all know working with horses is a great way of life but it can be such a lonely job when things aren’t going well. It’s then you really need good people around you and thankfully I had more than enough.”
Transparency and inclusiveness are something Levins feels passionately about when it comes to owners; “I am always encouraging them to come visit the stable, bring their families along and get to know the team here.
“Owners pay enough for the privilege of having a horse in training, so I believe it should be about more than just five minutes in the parade ring on race-day.”
Before the sun set on the year that was 2021, there was still time for veteran chaser Wishmoor to add a second jumps win for the stable. A cheap purchase from the Gigginstown dispersal at Goffs two years previously, the 11-year-old offered further proof of Levins’s uncanny ability to rekindle the spark in those older horses.
“With every new horse that comes into the yard, we start with a blank canvas,” he said. “My vet Tom Austin is unbelievable at spotting any issues and we work closely together. Obviously, if the problem is a mental one, it’s much cheaper; you just try different programmes until you identify one that suits the individual’s needs.
“I find the ones without physical problems are just bored from working hard to get fit, so we completely change their work load and focus on freshness.”
The frustrations of the previous season were soon consigned to the scrap heap as Johnny Levins hit the ground running in 2022. Wins for Brushwork and Prisoners Dilemma ensured the stable recorded a double at the first meeting of the new year at Dundalk.
That great old servant Tai Sing Yeh was back in the number one spot in February, while Prisoners Dilemma added another win in March. A fifth career victory for Tai Sing Yeh since joining the stable was to prove one of his most significant.
While providing the trainer with an early turf success at Navan in May, the eight-year-old was also crediting Levins with his 100th winner since taking out his licence. Ten more winners have followed, including a real purple patch in late June/early July.
“We ran six horses over the course of a fortnight, with five of them winning and the other finishing a close second;” Levins recalls.
They say that statistics never lie and the stats certainly make for better reading this time round; 12 wins from 69 runs (17% strike rate), eight winners from 17 individual runners (47% winners/runners).
Unfortunately, training is a numbers game and like it or not, Johnny Levins just doesn’t have the numbers. From those 17 individual runners, Tai Sing Yeh and Brushwork have since departed the yard.
“As a trainer, I have to run my horses where I think they have the best chance of winning and both Tai Sing Yeh and Brushwork had real chances in those claimers,” Levins said.
A smaller trainer will almost inevitably eventually become the victim of their own success, with the handicapper naturally having to raise horses after a win. That, in turn, leads to badly handicapped horses, something Levins is only too familiar with.
“If you look at our stats, you will notice a pattern. We had very good campaigns in 2016 (16 wins) and 2017 (14 winners) but then the following two seasons were disappointing, 2018 (6) and 2019 (2)
“The horses had just gone that bit too high in the handicap and it took a while for them to get competitive again.”
Prisoner’s Dilemma with Donagh O’Connor has been a stable stalwart \ carolinenorris.ie
Perhaps, given the success of 2020 (13 wins), it should have come as little surprise to see leaner times descend on Curragh Racing Stables last season.
At the lower level, trainers just don’t have the budget to go out and buy horses, carrying them themselves, until an owner comes along. Thus, trainers like Johnny Levins are left with no option but to depend on the same horses year on year; unless the odd new one comes along.
“There is no doubt that in a small stable, it’s a dawn ‘til dusk, seven day a week vocation,
They are reliant on owners sending them horses, as opposed to hitting the sales with large orders. In such cases, as with Aristovic and Shawaamekh this year, Levins has proven more than capable of getting the best out of new recruits.
Training in Ireland has never been more competitive, with the gap between those at the top and their pursuers widening by the day. While resigned to this fact, Levins feels that in many ways, the future is in his own hands.
“You just need to keep doing well; getting the best out of the horses you have. Training winners attracts attention and is the best publicity you can generate.
“The more owners you have in your yard that were successful with their own business interests, the more you will win in the sales ring.
“If you are winning in the sales ring, that in turn, will eventually lead to wins on the racecourse. It’s all about attracting the big owners and breeders; and they are attracted to winners.”
Johnny Levins has already proven that given the right ammunition, he can also train a better-quality racehorse. Black Beach and Galway Bay were listed-placed juveniles in the early days, while Prisoners Dilemma has made the step up to that class recently. Levins’ handling of the latter has been exemplary; rising from a 74-rated handicapper to 103-rated listed horse.
A staunch supporter of claiming races, Levins feels it’s the best way for any trainer to do business. “If you bring a horse worth €6-7,000 to the sales in Newmarket, it will cost you nearly €2,000 between everything before a bid is even received and more if the horse goes unsold.
“In a claimer, that same horse can run for what it’s worth in prize money, with the added possibility of getting claimed. If I had my way, all 47-65 races would be claimers with set prices.
“This would lead to a massive turnover for smaller yards and also make racing cleaner, as all maiden horses would be looking for a mark above 65,” he said.
Levins also holds strong views on the general state of the sport in this country.
“I think Irish racing has a big fight on its hands. Prize money is simply not good enough considering what owners pay for the initial purchase and annual cost of keeping a horse in training.
“You’ve only got to go racing to see that crowds are in decline; owners are down and sponsors are proving more difficult to attract. However, that’s up to the powers in charge and we have to rely on them to be on top of these things.”
A firm believer in having a regular stable jockey(s), Levins has never been afraid to give youth a chance.
Gary Carroll and Ronnie Whelan both rode as number one for a time, before Donagh O’Connor was appointed to the position.
The latter, who was still an apprentice at the time, has since gone on to ride out his claim.
“I’ve always believed in the importance of jockeys knowing my horses and how I think regarding tactics. I’m keen to use the same riders on the track as on the gallops,” Levins said.
However, with O’Connor doing so well over the winter months at Dundalk, he has been much more in demand this year. “Donagh is a very good jockey and has been getting more noticed of late. With him now riding out at Rosewell House twice a week and for John McConnell another morning, I have had to appoint a second jockey to share the rides.”
Tai Sing Yeh and Donagh O'Connor win the Tote SP Handicap at Navan \ Healy Racing
Levins was delighted to secure the services of Joey Sheridan, a jockey he had on his radar for some time. “I’ve been impressed with Joey for a while and was happy to get a commitment from him to come in and get to know the horses and my team.
“Fortunately, he has clicked with us straight away and already ridden four winners for the yard. I think once he learns how to ride as a stable jockey and not as a freelance, he will be the complete package and definitely has the making of a top-class jockey.”
Aside from O’Connor and Sheridan, Levins also mentored Sean Kirrane, who has since gone on to forge a successful apprentice career in Britain.
He is now very much looking forward to the latest additions to the riding ranks at Curragh Racing Stables. “I have two apprentices coming through in Katelyn Bailey and Emma Murphy. If they continue on the right path, I believe they could have bright futures ahead of them.”
Despite the challenges overcome to date and those that still lay in wait, Johnny Levins remains cautiously optimistic about the future.
“There is no doubt that in a small stable, it’s a dawn ‘til dusk, seven day a week vocation, where all your work is judged in just a couple of minutes on the racecourse.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the job but it’s a very fine line between staying afloat and doing really well, in what must be one of the most competitive sports in the world. “Given the strength in depth of trainers in Ireland and the wealth of talent at their disposal in terms of horses, one could easily be forgiven, if one were to wilt under the pressure, given the intensity of that competition.
“Look, we’ll keep driving on as hard as we can and hopefully, we’ll get more good results out of it, to reflect the hard work we’re putting in behind the scenes.
“With a small bit of luck and the continued support of our brilliant owners, we’ll hopefully build on the great start we’ve had to the year and who knows where that road might take us.”