In keeping with the cyclical nature of things, shortly after the National Hunt racing season reaches its zenith at the Cheltenham Festival and begins to wind down thereafter, it’s around that time that affairs on the Flat really takes off in earnest. Action over jumps has always been the preferred sphere for me and most likely always will be. That said, a few special – albeit flimsy – connections are held with happenings on the level. Foremost among them that John Oxx’s family lived in Dunboyne and were heavily involved in the community.
John’s cousin Eugene Power – successfully involved in racing himself having bred useful types in Agus A Vic and Chino Valdes – still lives locally. Indeed, one of the most memorable occasions held in these parts in recent years was when St Peter’s GAA Club invited John and his wife Caitriona to a function to honour the contribution the Oxx family made to the area.
More than that, it was a celebration of what was an outstanding season for the trainer thanks to that amazing colt, Sea The Stars. With a horse as good as he was, there’s a tendency to think anyone could’ve trained him. Far from it, with a steed as precocious as Christopher Tsui’s, career management and working around and through expectations becomes crucial.
Here, the master of Curraghbeg excelled, doing what was in the best interests of the horse. Much to the chagrin of some so called experts, it has to be said. Yes, the trainer had the supreme equine athlete to work. Possessed of the ability, speed, guts and stamina that made him the most complete racehorse many of us have ever seen.
All of which was made possible by John’s magnificent management of his charge. Nothing else would’ve been expected. Even with what until recent years would’ve been a limited grasp on the flat scene, it was clear he was one of the greats of the game. Think of the achievements of horses like Ridgewood Pearl, Sindaar and Azamour. Sea The Stars merely confirmed what we already knew.
Racing can be extremely fickle though. Admittedly, the trainer hasn’t had the same levels of success since those heady days, but, when you’re at the very top staying there is the hard part. And in many ways there’s only one way you can go. That said, the way he had begun to be discounted and even disrespected – by some at least – is hard to fathom.
Reputations in any business are earned the hard way and just because someone is not as prominent doing what they do doesn’t mean they’ve become bad at it. Flat racing is more of an exact science than the jumps fare. Simply because the string of horse the trainer has to work with changes every couple of years at most.
The fact is that John Oxx hasn’t had the quality at his disposal in the last couple of seasons as before. Yet, notable victories were achieved by both Minsk and What A Charm while in his care. This fact seems to have been overlooked by people in the sport to whom it should really matter.
You see, one cannot but feel sorry for Oxx arising from the Aga Khan’s decision to firstly no longer have a retained rider here and also add Dermot Weld to his roster. That’s not to say Weld doesn’t deserve such accreditation – he most certainly does. But, there was a time when Curraghbeg was the sole yard with stock belonging to His Highness.
Mick Halford joined the ranks some years ago. He got his big break as a trainer with Cassamento before that one was sold to Godolphin and – wrongly in my view – taken off him. He has already justified the faith shown in him by the Aga Khan and is only likely to continue to do so. Which will inevitably lead to an increase in the numbers representing the yard in the famed green and red silks.
And which would also lead one to wonder where does all that leave Oxx. The latter is one of the most open, honest affable people in the business. A person who commands the utmost respect of everybody in the sport. You’d wonder, in fact, has the man’s honesty backfired on him.
For, in what’s a rare move in the sport, he made no secret of the fact that his stable had been struggling with a virus for some time. Hope would be that this hasn’t shaped the Aga Khan’s recent thinking, that the addition of Weld to proceedings marks an expansion of Irish operations rather than a degrading of his original handler.
Spare a thought for Declan McDonogh too. His non retention as rider is of course a blow to the Moynalty man. However, if anyone needed a reminder of what both could do they need only have seen My Titania hack up in a recent Leopardstown maiden. The filly was, to my knowledge, the first Sea The Stars progeny to score in Ireland.
Owner Tsui has at least a dozen more of his former star’s offspring. So the good times may not be long coming around again for Oxx or McDonogh. Form is temporary, class is permanent.