Five smaller stables shining under Dundalk's bright lights
To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, Brian Sheerin talks to some of the lesser-known trainers who are making their presence felt in the competitive all-weather arena at Dundalk
It's often said that Dundalk provides the 'small trainer' with a chance of making ends meet but it would be wrong to suggest lower-tier operators are left to their own devices on the all-weather throughout the winter months.
In many ways, some of the bigger yards place great emphasis on Dundalk. In addition to keeping stable staff employed all year round, the all-weather meetings offer excellent prize-money and opportunities for claiming riders to hone their craft, making this a competitive arena for all involved.
Mick Halford has the biggest appetite for the County Louth track, with 24 winners gobbled up this year, and clearly has the hunger to retain his trainers' title there this winter.
Joseph O'Brien, Ger Lyons, Aidan O'Brien and Jim Bolger complete the top five on the all-weather in 2017 but the big fish do not have things all their own way and here are some of the less well-known names to watch at Dundalk this winter.
A trainer who would probably be unknown to many if it weren’t for Dundalk, Murphy enjoyed his finest hour in racing this month when he had his first double courtesy of Koybig and No Approval.
Murphy’s achievement in getting Koybig to win three on the spin is notable enough, but that he is still operating as a restricted licence holder and has only three all-weather horses makes his recent successes even more impressive.
Murphy reveals there was an added significance to the double, saying: “I run a farm as well as training but on the Wednesday morning before that Dundalk meeting I took the trainer’s course on the Curragh before making my way to the races. I’m hoping that the two winners I had that afternoon will go some way to helping me get my full licence.”
He adds: “We have four horses in and three of them are for Dundalk. It’s a huge opportunity for a trainer like myself to run horses who would otherwise struggle on the grass."
It’s a nine-hour round trip to Dundalk from Birrane’s base in Killala, County Mayo, but such punishing journeys have been made to seem short in recent weeks thanks to the stable’s success.
“I’ve been training for Daniel MacAuliffe and Anoj Don for over a year now and we had our first winner together at the track last month with Glenmoore," Birrane says. "We've had three more winners since and we’ve plenty more to run at the track over the winter. The past couple of months have been an absolute dream.”
Few trainers outside the top five have been able to make an impact at Dundalk quite like Feane. The Kildare-based trainer sent out his first winner at the course in January 2014 when Pat Smullen steered Prince Connoisseur to victory and there have been 43 more trips to the Dundalk winner’s enclosure.
What is most impressive about Feane’s progress is that he has also done well on the turf, ending last season with a personal best of 15 winners.
“Dundalk is where I started off and it’s a fantastic facility. It's a place I've been keen to use right from the beginning," Feane says.
“Some of the horses you're dealing with may not have the biggest engines but if you have one whose heart is in the right place, you should be able to find a race for them there.
“In comparison to the all-weather prize-money in England, we're in a healthy position and it’s good to have the opportunity of making a few quid throughout the winter.”
He adds: “It opens up a few more doors for trainers who might otherwise be forced to compete over the jumps when the Flat season finishes.
“The jumps has become somewhat monopolised in recent years and, while we're competing against the likes of Aidan O’Brien and Jim Bolger on a regular basis, you also have the opportunity to sell your horses to international clients, which helps.
“If anything, the two codes seem to have swapped places and Flat racing has now become more accessible, whereas Red Rum might not even get into a Grand National these days.
“We have 15 or 20 horses for Dundalk this winter and we'll keep ourselves as busy as possible. We want as many winners as we can get.”
McNamara runs stable star Cascavelle in this Friday's feature (6.30).
The 29-year-old has always held the three-year-old in high regard but feels he would be in a difficult predicament with the son of Shamardal if the Dundalk all-weather did not exist.
“We knew Cascavelle was a good horse before he won his maiden at Galway, after which Mr Zhang Yuesheng bought into him," he explains. "However, things didn’t go to plan on his first start for his new owner when he didn’t handle the soft ground at Cork.
“If it wasn’t for Dundalk, Cascavelle would be standing in a field during the winter with a very deflated owner and trainer after that Cork run, but instead he’s proved his ability with a good win there last month and we think he can continue to progress on the surface.”
So much so that McNamara may soon be charting an ambitious path towards Dubai with the grey. “If he can progress again and win in the same fashion as he did last time, you’d have to start thinking about Dubai, and such a trip wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Dundalk.”
McNamara has had plenty of experience of the over-subscription that has plagued Dundalk in recent weeks and has strong views on the matter.
"I’m probably not the only one who thinks there should be another Dundalk in the south of Ireland," he says.
“They might not be the best-quality horses on show but it provides the smaller owners with an opportunity to get winners and they’re the type of people we need to be encouraging in this game.
He adds: “I still think there’s an awful amount of work to be done surrounding the balloting issue.
“The 45-65 rated horses aren’t necessarily the type I want to train, but they offer owners a great opportunity to experience racing for a small amount of money and it’s becoming too hard to train them as there aren’t enough opportunities. At the moment it’s not a satisfactory system.”
O'Brien is one of the newest trainers to burst on to the Dundalk scene and he built on the five winners he recorded on the all-weather this year with a further seven on turf.
The rookie trainer has proved himself a dab hand at improving horses that nobody else wanted any more but says there is no great secret to his success.
“We don’t over-complicate things," he says. "We have a simple routine that involves a couple of steady canters each day and it seems to work.
“Of the horses that we've managed to win with, they were all remarkably sound but they'd lost their form for one reason or another. The change of scenery seemed to suit them well and as a result of previously being out of form, they were all pretty well handicapped and we were able to capitalise on that.”
O’Brien may have made a name for himself by proving his ability to transform horses at the bottom end of the handicap but he doesn’t see problems with the racing programme.
He says: “I think it's fine for the lower-grade horses. Any horse who is capable of running to their mark will protect themselves from the balloting system pretty quickly.
“It’s the horses who can’t that are the most expensive to keep in training and they’re not the types we need to be encouraging owners to get involved with.
“For me, it’s something of a myth that these higher-rated horses cost large sums of money. I'd be more comfortable encouraging owners towards better-quality horses and sharing the costs through a syndicate."
He adds: "There's a nice sprinting programme on the all-weather this winter for horses rated 75 and above and I recall a five-furlong handicap recently where only seven were declared and the winner, Oneoveryou, was rated 73.
"Unfortunately, few of us had candidates for that race, but I hope that race planners persevere with the better-quality races."
The quality in O’Brien’s County Limerick stable is on the rise and, after a successful stint at the sales, he has increased his string to ten and is represented on the sand again on Friday evening.
O’Brien, Feane, Birrane, Murphy and McNamara are just some of the trainers who have enjoyed a decent slice of success on the all-weather this year and their stories confirm there’s still a place for everyone at the table over the winter period.
Want to read more stories like this? Access daily newspaper content online and enjoy favourites such as Pricewise, our award-winning columnists, RP Sunday, race replays and more when you subscribe to Members’ Club Ultimate. Find out more here