The victory of Drumbear in the Downpatrick Bumper of March 21st hardly made any headlines. Even allowing for the continued ascent of the winning trainer John McConnell and rider Ben Harvey. But for another reason it was a seminal contest regarding the current state of Irish racing. Now read on…
Finishing in sixth place that day was Ultra Viers, in the colours of Mrs Fitri Hay. Often more synonymous with appearing in Classics on the Flat. The bay son of Fame And Glory come home sixth having been afforded a considerate ride by the very promising Pat Taaffe, with the 5-year-old having been sent out by the young rider’s dad, Tom. What came as a complete shock to yours truly – and most likely a vast majority of the racing fraternity – was to learn shortly thereafter the aforementioned bumper contestant was to be the final runner sent into battle from Taaffe’s Straffan stable.
Being the son of an iconic figure in sport or any walk of life is no walk in the park at any time. The unfair but seemingly unavoidable “He’ll never be as good as his father” dross is millstone enough for anybody to be burdened with, but it makes carving one’s own niche in whatever facet of life in happens to be.
Witness the likes of Shane Dooley in hurling, Karl O’Dwyer from a Gaelic football perspective, Cieren Fallon Jnr when it comes to Flat racing or Darren Ferguson making his own way in football management.
In terms of making one’s way in National Hunt racing, riding the winner of an Irish Grand National and preparing victors in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as well as a handful of other races at the Festival and also annexing a Galway Plate in damn near as good as it gets in that regard. Yet if ever there was a graphic illustration of the old maxim that you’re only as good as your last winner, seeing somebody of Tom’s pedigree opting not to renew his training license is surely it.
The son of Pat Taaffe – the man synonymous with the greatest racehorse ever foaled, Arkle, – came to the unfortunate but unavoidable conclusion that it was no longer viable trying to eek out a living in the training ranks. Your past achievements will only suffice as insurance of incoming business for so long. And it did, thanks to the likes of JP (McManus) and Gigginstown and David Cox and Conor Clarkson. All of those mentioned – and many other prominent owners in racing – are highly successful business people. You don’t attain such status without setting high standards and making prudent decisions. Thus, between the economic recession taking many of the big owners out of the sport and, perhaps consequently, winners drying up for Tom – and plenty more – his decision not to train on but instead turn his focus to the sales and breeding part of the industry.
Time doesn’t stand still, so sometimes the only option is to move with it. For Tom Taaffe that has meant as outlined above, but others have taken different approches to ensuring the continuing viability of their enterprises. Which for some of the sports’ most experienced and decorated personalities has meant a quite remarkable renaissance.
As big names in National Hunt racing go, few surpass those of Taaffe and Dreaper. Yet, even they are not immune to the schrapnel of prevailing winds. Where financial circumstances were the common cause of calamity for many trainers, for Jim Dreaper, the passing of both Ann and Alan Potts in quick succession left the Greenogue yard without their largest benefactor.
For Michael Morris, the unnecessary and unjust removal of the Gigginstown horses was compounded by the passing of Mr and Mrs Potts. Where the stories merge, though, is that both legends of the sport have replenished their operations via new stock from existing clients. Lar Skelly and Peter Newell in the case of gentleman Jim and JP and Brian Acheson’s Robcour banner for ‘Mouse’. At this juncture, it should be pointed out, too, that Corkonian Acheson has also thrown his seemingly considerable backing behind several other training operations.
And then there are those who have rounded by doing things their own way. Top quality operators who for a variety of reasons had slipped from the standing their acumen at the job undoubtedly warranted, and still does. Graded winning trainers all of them – Eamon ‘Dusty’ Sheehy, Philip Rothwell and Colm Murphy, to name but three. Seeing the latter in particular – who enjoyed stellar days in the past as the handler of bastions of the game such as Brave Inca, Big Zeb and Voller La Vadette – getting to a point where he felt there was no option but to relinquish his training license and explore other avenues from whence to derive an income.
Thankfully, for the man’s own sake and that of the entire sport, he has re-started among the training ranks. Backed principally by emerging forces in the brigades of owners in the guise of Mark McDonagh and Paul McKeon. The latter having previously had horses in training with Willie Mullins – including Cheltenham Bumper winner Relegate – and Johnny
BACK TO THE FUTURE?
On Sky television at present, there’s an advert for what looks like a modern take on the movie of the same name as the heading over this stanza. Doc and Marty McFly ride again. It might not be a full-blown western, but Noel Meade would surely approve. The great man from Castletown has as vast a collection of the timeless battles between cowboys and Indians as I have match programmes and race cards.
Hence why Tu Va inmates like Virgil Earp, Bat Masterson, Charlie Bassett, Jesse Evans and Ned Buntline – to name but a few who began their careers in the trainer’s own green and gold silks – were christened thus. Now however, it would be no surprise whatever to see one emerge in homage to the time-travelling classic.
Reason being as follows – when the multiply crowned Champion Trainer first took out his licence five decades ago, it was on the level he initially made his imprint on the sport. Until, as he has said himself on several occasions over the years, the increasing influence of Arab owners on the Irish flat scene made it increasingly difficult for ‘ordinary’ trainers to compete with the wealth and the domino effect that had on the entire scene.
Yet over the years Meade has demonstrably proven his adeptness at mixing it with the elite as horses such as Pinch Hitter, Blue Cannon, Snow Falcon, DeNameEscapesMe – most of those only what this corner can recall from more recent times. Especially as a larger part of the brain than usual is currently out of service for reasons which many will understand. Those who don’t will be enlightened later in the week. Hopefully.
Anyway, in an ironic twist, such has been the dominance of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott (Remember him?) and Henry De Bromhead in jump racing, the big Meathman is one of a number of handlers placing more store on the Flat. In the pertinent case here, that his literally been the case as an increasing number of yearlings and 2-year-olds have taken up residence out the far side of Navan.
That his increased presence on the Flat has been a successful venture from the point of view of the trainer and his owners should be no surprise. However, even I, being as big a Meade loyalist as there is, couldn’t have predicted that it would turn out to be the spectacular success it has been. First manifestation of which arrived via a Group winner at the back end of last season while the narrow defeat of Layfayette by Lusstown Baba was indicative of the high level to which that filly – and other Tu Va inmates – can compete at.
Something endorsed still further when the Patricia Hunt-owned youngster came out and claimed the first big Flat race of the season, the Cambridgeshire. The yard’s horses have continued to compete with gusto at the very highest level.
The epitome of which was Helvic Dream running an absolute belter behind the Aidan O’Brien-trained Broome on three separate occasions this season. Or it would have been had the steed part-owned by Connacht rugby legend Johnny Muldoon not wonderfully turned the form around with the Coolmore representative in the Tatterstalls Gold Cup at The Curragh.
As well as being one of the best trainers in the business, Noel is one of the best characters in the sport too. Remember, when he eventually did break his duck at the Cheltenham Festival courtesy of Sausalito Bay, he kissed the hallowed turf in the style of a Pontif.
Having won a vast array of the top prizes his sport has to offer, you’d wonder what novel ways he’d come up with of marking another landmark occasion in a truly remarkable training career. As that goes, proclaiming “Now I can die happy” fairly hits the spot!
Gut instinct, though, is to think, and hope, that he may have to keep the thinkimg hat on regarding celebrations for a good while yet!