There have been so many instrumental figures in the development of Irish racing over the last two hundred years but it is primarily in the last fifty years that the industry has grown exponentially, in which time Ireland has gone from being a bit-player on the fringes of world racing to being a world leader. Many factors came together to make this happen, but the most important factor is the people. Though Irish-bred and owned horses won the most prestigious English Classics in the 19th Century, including the Derby, Ireland was seen as very much a peripheral nation in horseracing, and the notion that top-class horses could be trained in Ireland was somewhat fanciful. No Irish-trained horse had won the English Derby and some believed that one never would.
Richard ‘Boss’ Croaker
However, due to the determination and drive of Richard ‘Boss’ Croker, the Irish-trained Orby won the English Derby in 1907. Croker was a returned emigrant from New York whose parents had fled the famine. He became an influential and controversial politician in New York before returning to Ireland where he built up his stable at Glencairn in Sandyford, Dublin and installed Colonel Freddie McCabe as his trainer. The horse’s chance of winning was rubbished by the ‘home’ sporting press of the time. “The turf in Ireland has no spring in it, the climate is too depressing, and no Irish trainer knows enough to even dare compete for the greatest race in the world.”
William Allison, The Sportsman.
It is difficult to appreciate now the enormity of this feat, but back then it was a colossal achievement. The Irish Times special correspondent reported on the day: “...it was a triumph for the island, which in its small compass contains a larger percentage of horse-lovers than any country on the face of the earth…”
To show that this was not a fluke, the same team combined to win the English 1,000 Guineas the following year with Rhodora, also a first Irish-trained win in the race. But it was quite a while before another ‘Blue Riband’ winner was trained in Ireland. However, the period from the 1940s onwards was one of change for Irish racing, and a number of men were responsible for this change which elevated Irish horses, owners and trainers to new heights and levels of respect worldwide.
That next Irish-trained winner of the Epsom Derby was Hard Ridden, in 1958. The horse was bought for only 270 guineas at Goffs sales as a yearling by the dominant owner of the time Sir Victor Sassoon and he was trained by Mick Rogers on the Curragh. Although having charge of only a small string, Rogers went on to win the 1964 Derby with Santa Claus, a tremendous feat for a small stable.
Now the floodgates to big-race success had started and Irish-trained success in the signature Flat and National Hunt races in England was, if not an everyday occurrence, then certainly not a rarity. This was due to mainly to two master trainers, Vincent O’Brien and Paddy Prendergast.
Vincent O’Brien raised the bar for Irish racing throughout his career, setting ever higher standards and then continually breaking them himself, firstly in the National Hunt field and then latterly in the Flat racing sphere. Over jumps he sent out an extraordinary three winners in a row of each of the Cheltenham Gold Cup (Cottage Rake 1948-50), Champion Hurdle (Hatton’s Grace 1949-51) and Grand National, (1953 Early Mist, 1954 Royal Tan and 1955 Quare Times).
At a period of harsh economic times for the country, he gave the people a reason to cheer. His Cheltenham and Aintree exploits were the equivalent of the football, rugby and athletic teams all rolled into one. He showed that Ireland could be great at something during a time when the country had very few sports stars. His domination of the Cheltenham jump racing festival was a phenomenon and set the scene for the Irish involvement there that continues to this day.
O’Brien was to win six Derbies and the names of his greatest horses trip off the tongue like the poetry of W.B. Yeats: Ballymoss, Gladness, Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Roberto, The Minstrel, Alleged, Storm Bird, El Gran Senor, Sadler’s Wells, Royal Academy, legends all. And his legacy lies in more than just the memorable racecourse performances. O’Brien was also an innovator and pioneer in the art and science of training racehorses. Those winners have exerted a lasting influence on the breed, as their bloodlines are to be found in the pedigrees of horses all over the globe. O’Brien died in 2009 at the age of 92. The esteem in which he was rightly held by the racing public was acknowledged when he was voted by the readers of the Racing Post as the greatest, most influential racing figure of all time. He was truly the man who made dreams come true.
At the same time, another Irish trainer, Paddy Prendergast , was making waves at home and in England, to such an extent that he became the first non-British-based trainer to be Champion Trainer there in three consecutive seasons, 1963-65. Based on the Curragh, the centre of Flat horse training in Ireland, he concentrated primarily on Flat horses from the start and was especially gifted at training two-year-olds. The two best horses he trained during his illustrious career were Ragusa and Meadow Court, both winners of the Irish Derby and the prestigious King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.
The industry was put on a good footing too, thanks in no small measure to one of the most important changes in Irish racing, instigated by a legendary figure, Joe McGrath. A member of the first Irish Free State Dail and a Cabinet Minister, he left politics to concentrate on his brainchild, the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, from which badly-needed funding for Irish hospitals was garnered. His persuasion of the Turf Club to allow the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes to sponsor the Irish Derby transformed the race, almost overnight, into the richest Derby in the world and one of the most important races in Europe. The first running under this sponsorship was in 1962 and saw arguably the biggest modern-day crowd ever assembled at the Curragh. This ushered in a new era in Irish racing. Among McGrath’s other achievements was to found the Irish Racing Board in 1946, the first time that a government actively helped racing’s finances. This obtained extra revenue for racing from betting and built the foundations for the current regulatory body that runs racing now, Horse Racing Ireland. McGrath also, along with the other shareholders, sold Leopardstown Racecourse to the Racing Board for a nominal price to ensure that racing continued at the famous course.
Through the sixties and seventies the racing and breeding industries in Ireland were starting to prosper. This is due in no small part to the fact that, in the last three decades, some of the best stallions in the world have stood in Ireland thanks to the hard work and investment by some immensely skilled horsemen, most notably Coolmore Stud. The latter’s resident Sadler’s Wells was the outstanding stallion of modern times, being Champion Sire in the UK and Ireland on no fewer than 14 occasions, thus breaking the record of the legendary foundation stallion St Simon. His deceased former studmate Danehill took over the Champion Sire mantle from him in latter years as well as dominating the Australian racing scene.
Of course the Cheltenham National Hunt Racing Festival is a special place to both English and Irish horsemen alike, and there have been two defining moments there for Ireland that fall into the category of “Where were you when this happened?” The first was Arkle’s breathtaking victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964 and the second was Dawn Run’s brave win in the same race in 1986. Both horses’ wins had a deeper significance too because their connections have established deep family associations with racing that are still thriving today. Arkle (the greatest Steeplechaser ever) was trained by Tom Dreaper whose son Jim is also a successful trainer today and he was ridden by Pat Taaffe whose son Tom was himself a top-class jockey and is now a successful trainer. Dawn Run was trained by Paddy Mullins whose sons Willie, Tony and Tom are now top trainers and whose grandsons Emmet, Patrick and Danny are all fine jockeys. This exemplifies another great strength that Irish racing possesses: namely great racing families and continuity of horsemanship through the generations. The Walsh, Carberry and Moore racing families are also great examples of this.
“Other trainers have had the cream of the best-bred yearlings and haven’t come up with the goods but Aidan has.”
Guy St John Williams, Racing Historian
The people are the key and none of Ireland’s success would be possible without the immensely skilled horsemen and women who are a part of the fabric of Irish life. Currently, Ireland is in the midst of the career of one of the most amazing horsemen the world has ever seen, Aidan O’Brien. Since taking out a licence to train in 1993, O’Brien has broken all conventions and (like his namesake, but no relation, Vincent) he has reached the top echelons in both National Hunt and Flat racing. As his frequent 1-2-3s in the Irish Derby and other Group 1 races demonstrate, he is simply a genius with horses. Yes, he has the might of Coolmore Stud behind him, but having the ammunition is only half the battle in racing. It’s how you use it that’s more important.
John Oxx, Jim Bolger & Dermot Weld
John Oxx and Jim Bolger have also contributed hugely to Ireland’s lofty reputation on the world’s racetracks, both winning the English Derby plus Group 1 races at the Breeders’ Cup in America and the Hong Kong International meeting. Dermot Weld, one of the undisputed masters of world training, is still the only European trainer to win the Melbourne Cup, which he has done twice with Vintage Crop in 1993 and Media Puzzle in 2002, and also to win an American Triple Crown race, the Belmont Stakes with Go and Go in 1990.
Content courtesy of Go Racing Ireland, with thanks