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Saturday, 17 November, 2018

Exploring Ireland’s great sporting plain in the company of John Oxx

Dermot Weld's string return home after exercising up the Old Vic
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First published on Wednesday, June 26, 2013

From here it is difficult not to be taken by the majesty of the Curragh. High up on the rise known as Walsh's Hill, you have a view of the famous plains that would be the envy of many a red-blooded chieftain. Down in front are the most spectacular sweeping gallops, as good a view as there is of the 800 acres of Ireland's most famous plain.

For generations these gallops have been surrounded by stables housing some of the best horses in the world – winners of the Derby, Arc, Breeders' Cup and Champion Hurdle. These horses have been handled by some of the best horsemen Ireland has gifted the world – trainers, jockeys and stable staff. And as the morning threatens to break out, with an eastern sky about to unleash its fireball, names spoken in the households of Ireland and Britain begin to tear horseback holes in the horizon.

"That's Dermot Weld's string," someone points out. "They always come out at this hour of the morning. And Johnny Murtagh's are heading up the road behind you." You turn around and he's right, there's no mistaking the grin that filled our screens last week from Ascot.

The 50-odd trainers and 1,000 or so horses here work miles apart though, and as John Oxx tells me later: "We all chip away along the circumference on this massive plain – you wouldn't really see some of the other trainers from one week to the next."

Off in the distance, where the vast tracts of grass finally meet tarmac and concrete, the underwhelming structure we know as Curragh racecourse sits at the bottom. Right now it might resemble a sad string of Christmas lights slumped in a box - but on Saturday, for its big day, it will turn itself on and shine brightly.

And while the facilities – soon again to be revamped – have wrinkled and faded and bent over with age, there is no knocking its imperious track, 60 metres wide in the straight and buzzing with tractors and men marking out rails from the mile-and-a-half start.

‘There’s only one thing that matters here’

You might be only a driver and a three-wood from the motorway that runs from Dublin to Cork and Limerick but there is something tranquil about this unique piece of Ireland. It is easy to forget in this couple of hundred acres only one thing matters, by law in fact. The racehorse.

The Curragh wasn't always a plain. It rests on an aquifer which means it sits on a foundation of water-laden gravel. Trees could never develop deep roots and therefore made it easy to clear. Centuries ago the Curragh was an area of agriculture, and the cultivation ridges can still be seen. And, as Oxx's jeep careers up and down them, they can still be felt too.

Michael O'Callaghan's fourth lot head home from the Stepaside gallop on a snowy morning
"It used to be the realm of farmers but in the last 1,000 years it has primarily been an area for sporting occasions," says Oxx, at the wheel. "Hundreds of years ago the Curragh was a great sporting arena. Nowadays it has three main users: the army, who run the Curragh, if you like; the sheep men, who have the grazing rights; and then you have the horse people, the Turf Club, who are the long-term tenants."

The Turf Club holds a 150-year lease on the part of the Curragh – 860 acres – that was granted with the Curragh of Kildare Act of 1961 and houses the numerous gallops and the racecourse. All of these elements are inside a concrete fence built in the early 1960s. That fence is a daily reminder of those critical years in the development of the Curragh as a haven for the horse.

"The fence was erected in anticipation of the Irish Sweeps Derby of 1962," says Oxx, who grew up on the Curragh and has an engaging knowledge of the place. "It had been decided in 1960 or so that there was a need to improve the quality of the racing surface, so they needed to keep the sheep off it.

"A number of the big studs adjoining the Curragh had sheep-grazing rights, but they relinquished them and therefore it was possible to justify fencing off the 860 acres from the rest.

"When the McGrath family and the Hospital Sweepstakes decided to sponsor the Irish Sweeps Derby, it transformed a race that had been worth £8,000 to the winner to one worth £52,000. At that time it was the biggest race in the world and here we were, little Ireland, delivering this huge race.

"So it was considered by the politicians as a major step forward and the McGrath family had a lot of political influence at the time. There was no great objection, and the sheep owners couldn't really object either.

"It coincided with a fruitful time. The early 1960s was a golden age for Irish trainers based here. We didn't have as many as now, and the trainers didn't train as many horses – 50 would be considered a big string. Each rider mucked out and rode out two lots. They spent half the morning oiling the tack, plenty of spit and polish.

"Training horses was a nicer business then and all the trainers around here had old, established clients.

"I can still remember the trainers and who their clients were: they seemed to stick with them, people didn't chop and change. You automatically knew who trained the horse back then when you saw an owner's name, and an awful lot of trainers on the Curragh had a big American client during the 1960s. I think it was fashionable for them to go to Europe for the summer and they all had quite a bit of success.

Horses make their way to the gallops on the Curragh
'Modern trainers carry the torch lit by these pioneers’

"It was the time when PJ Prendergast was leading trainer in Britain three years running and the standard was very high. Vincent O'Brien came the following year and won the big races. My father, John Oxx [snr], was doing well, Seamus McGrath was doing well - they were the big four at the time.

"English stables were very strong but the Curragh ones were as well and it brought up the whole standard."

You could readily argue that, 50 years on, with record levels of Irish success at Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival, Irish trainers continue to carry the torch lit by these pioneers.

The Curragh might look as it did hundreds of years ago but there have been changes. The railway came in the mid-1800s and split the plain in two.

"I wouldn't think the railway was too controversial, everybody realised the importance of it," says Oxx. "But when the British Army decided to set up a permanent camp here in the 19th century I'd say that went down like a lead balloon with the horsey people because in the old days the racecourse even extended over to where the barracks is.

"Nowadays the [Irish] army keep out of the way. Every now and again they do manoeuvres but they give you good warning if they're going to do something out of the ordinary. They have a good relationship with the Turf Club and the sheepmen get on well with everyone as well.

"The last controversy came at the time of the motorway. We wanted tunnels under it but the council were very wary of them. I think the main objection thrown at us was because this road was planned during the troubles in the 1980s and the army was concerned tunnels so close to the camp could be used by subversives. There were some IRA people held in the army prison at the time.

“That’s why we have bridges now, one at each end of the Curragh. People were worried they would be unsightly, and I suppose they are, but you get used to them and stuff grows around them. While people did everything not to have them, sheep had to circulate and horses had to get across. They had to go up and that was that.”

The racecourse might be the shop window but it is the miles of gallops – 60 miles on grass alone – that serve as the arteries for the lifeblood of the Curragh.

John Oxx's string canter on the Foxcover gallop

“This is where all the main grass gallops are,” says Oxx, parking up on Walsh’s Hill. “They have taken a terrible pounding with all of the rain but it’s dry enough now for them to begin working on some of the dry areas.

“Walsh’s Hill is where we have our two best strips of grass: Walsh’s Hill Trial gallop, which is a plain grass gallop, and Walsh’s Hill Trial Peat, which is a peat moss gallop that must be 200 years old.

“You can see the way it is raised up – that’s from putting a little dressing of peat on it every November for two centuries – it stays nice and spongy when everywhere else is firm. I use it sparingly because it costs €20 per horse per time. That’s a deterrent, it stops people from using it, which is important. The whole secret of having good grass gallops is not to use them!

“But it’s a unique strip of ground and there’s nowhere else with a gallop like that. The sand and fibre gallop there is over nine furlongs; in front of the racetrack we have the Polytrack and the Old Vic, which is a woodchip gallop – one is nine and a half furlongs long, the other is ten. Then we have all the grass gallops, what we call the Flat Rath.”

‘Refurbishment of gallops has been a huge success’

Paul Hensey, general manager of the racecourse, reveals a full-time team of 17 people care for the gallops. Last year 5,299 horses trained by handlers outside the Curragh pulled up at the gallops in their horseboxes and paid to use the facility. In the bad days of last summer and this spring, when ordinary gallops lay saturated, the Curragh kept the show on the road for many.

“When John McStay was chairman of the racecourse he instigated a refurbishment of every gallop on the Curragh,” says Hensey. “And that was finished off in Philip Caffrey’s time.

“We’ve invested a huge amount of money in it but it’s paid off. It’s been a huge success.” The figure has been put at a ballpark €2.5 million.

Horses from Dermot Weld's yard start their canter up the Old Vic all-weather gallop
Oxx’s jeep stops at the top of the gallop and, for a moment, the engine is turned off. We look down at the racecourse.

“Everybody knows it is dilapidated by modern standards and the facilities don’t reflect what happens on the track,” says Oxx.

“And with everybody talking about the state of the place it’s become harder for the management to attract people into the racetrack on race days. It’s a shame that we’ve missed the boat. While everywhere else has been improved the most important track in the country hasn’t. But they have the chance now to build something special, and I don’t mean big. I mean something nice on a modest scale that is architecturally coherent.”

Making do is the theme for now though. Every available pole has a freshly painted look to it ahead of this weekend’s Derby meeting, and out on the pristine track Hensey proudly shows the new type of grass they’ve added to the mix. “This type breaks a little lower,” he display on a green stem plucked from the turf, “and that gives you a better spring, it’s a better surface for it.”

It might be only 11 years since Hensey joined the Curragh as general manager, but it was a different time then. The Aga Khan’s speech at the Moyglare dinner in 2001 was the catalyst for change and a proposed monstrosity of a development grew and grew until it went north of €100 million.

“The big thing back then was that you were going to be managing the Curragh at a time of great change,” he admits. The proposed new Curragh was a plan belonging to a Celtic Tiger era, and with planning issues, objections and ultimately budgetary concerns, it fizzled out in 2009.

Frustration of covering the cracks for the last 20 years

“Since then we’ve had one eye on development. We’ve been working away with facilities, but we’re covering the cracks with paint. It’s frustrating to have such a big racecourse with an international dimension and no money spent on it in 20 years.

“The last time we went about this it was a different economic climate. At the time we were turning away corporate customers at a very high level (it was €400 a head in some of the Curragh’s corporate marquees) and we didn’t have enough space.

“We were building a big grandstand with huge corporate capacity. It falling through was probably a blessing in disguise because what we had designed was too ambitious.

“We’ve done a lot of very good things since the last time around. The new road has gone in and that’s an important step. His Highness The Aga Khan purchased the Stand Hotel for the Turf Club as his gift to Irish racing and that is a fantastic site for the new development. His Highness has been very proactive in our new plans and thankfully he has been patient.

“We’ve carried out a feasibility study for what we could do for €50m – half the cost of the project last time – and I’ve been surprised with what you can do compared to seven or eight years ago. It’s now gone for an architectural tender, so the wheels are in motion.”

What’s remarkable about the Curragh is that for an area so big, those who breathe its air still hold a proprietary interest. “I learned to drive out here, nearly killed a few sheep and crashed into the furze bushes!” says Oxx. “It’s a good spot to learn to drive.”

Oxx runs outsider Little White Cloud in the big race on Saturday, so tears back to his Currabeg stables to ensure preparations remain on track.

As does Hensey and his team. Standing at the mile pole and watching his men stake out the track for the weekend, he says: “I’d arrive on some mornings with a brainwave about a rail configuration or another for the track and I’d mention it to one of the groundstaff who’ve been here 30-odd years. I’d be told, ‘Sure we tried that in the early 1970s and it didn’t work at all’. Back in your box – the history in this place is something else.”

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English stables were very strong but the Curragh ones were as well and it brought up the whole standard

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