Racehorses have been your life for over 40 years. Do you still get the same buzz out of the game as when you started training back in 1971?
I think so, even if it is a bit different nowadays. I started out from scratch so the beginning was a bit of an adventure. But the buzz is still there and I always love going into the yard and working with young horses.
And at the end of the day nothing beats having a winner. Even a winner at somewhere like Ballinrobe – after a bad run it acts as a pick-me-up.
The whole game is like a drug, really. I enjoy going to the sales, buying young stock, always looking for that exceptional horse.
At the races, when I go through the gates it’s like going home and always a good craic.
Was your family involved in racing?
No. My father, a farmer, wasn’t particularly interested. He might have gone to the Irish National at Fairyhouse and perhaps the occasional point-to-point but nothing more than that.
Unfortunately, my father became sick so I started to run the farm when I was 16 and mad on racing. I linked up with a pal who lived nearby and we bought a horse called Tu Va for 100 guineas from Buster Harty.
Tu Va turned out to be great for me because I trained and rode him at a time when there was free transport to the races.
He won three or four times and was placed every time he ran, albeit in small races, but he was making money for us, like a little cash machine!
We named our stables after him in recognition of the start he gave us.
As a Director of Fairyhouse how much involvement do you have in running the racecourse?
At one stage I was very critical of Fairyhouse and it was suggested that I got involved with the racecourse myself. I thought the place was going downhill, looking very shabby and just wasn’t the Fairyhouse I remembered growing up with as a kid.
Now I get on very well with the Chairman Pat Byrne and the Manager Peter Roe, and spend quite a bit of time with them discussing the racing side of things.
The first thing I was keen to do was to improve the parade ring, which looked like a cattle yard. We have developed the parade ring and the lead-in, which is now on rubber matting.
We are also in the process of putting in a new covered presentation stand and the place has a much better feel to it.
You enjoyed Royal Ascot success early on (1978 Cork and Orrery with Sweet Mint) but later switched to concentrate on the jumps. Why?
That was a marvellous, marvellous day with my first Royal Ascot runner. But I let the occasion run away with me because stupidly I thought it was easy to win at Royal Ascot.
I brought a lot of horses over afterwards and they all got beat. I soon realised it was the hardest place in the world to win.
I was always leaning towards jumping, but when I started I would have trained anything, Flat or jumps.
Originally I was concentrating on buying yearlings, always a bigger colt with a staying pedigree for about 20 grand. I would buy 15 to 20 of these and sell them on and it was in this way that I got going.
But then there were more and more Arab horses, Aga Khan horses and Ballydoyle was building up into quite a formidable operation, and I found I couldn’t buy the horses I wanted with the money I had.
So I made a conscious decision to move away from the Flat.
What, in your opinion, are the best and worst developments or changes in National Hunt racing during your time with a licence?
The best without any doubt is the development of the Pattern for novices. It has proved an enormous help, providing a fantastic programme for young hurdlers and chasers.
There are more conditions races and more opportunities for good horses rather than having to go into handicaps.
The introduction of these races has provided a big step forward for the prospective stars.
One of the worst developments has been the downturn in racecourse attendances. I find it almost depressing to see no more than five or six hundred people at some meetings.
This was started by the drink-driving laws, which meant people couldn’t come to the races and have a few drinks. That has been a big factor.
The other is the fact that all races are televised so people can watch from home, on At The Races or Racing UK, rather than incur the expense of going racing.
You have trained more than 2,000 winners, won seven trainers’ championships and landed countless big races. What do you believe has been your greatest achievement?
On Easter Monday in 1990 I ran five horses and they all won, four at Fairyhouse and one at Cork. We were pretty confident they would all win and it’s very rare you enjoy such a perfect day.
Unfortunately, we clashed with Desert Orchid winning the Irish National that day and our achievement was lost in all the adulation for ‘Dessie’.
Getting the show up and running was a pretty big achievement. When I started there was one building that housed a working horse on the farm and I built the first 30 stables with my own bare hands, laying the blocks, building the walls, making the doors and hanging the doors.
Now we have 140 boxes – but I didn’t build 140.
Is the fact that the Cheltenham Festival dominates the jumps season a good or bad thing?
Racing has become geared too much towards Cheltenham. I think a lot of meetings, together with their big races, have lost their own individual status by becoming ‘another trial’ for Cheltenham.
The Hennessy Gold Cup, the King George, the Lexus, to name but three, are magnificent races in their own right but are inclined to have the gloss taken from them by the perpetual post-race discussion about whether or not the contestants are worthy Cheltenham candidates.
The press and television coverage of big races all too often looks ahead to Cheltenham, asking if horses are worthy of their place there, while ignoring what has been achieved in front of their very eyes.
When Cheltenham introduced the fourth day I thought it was a good idea but now I am not so sure. Some of the new races are not championships and the quality has been diluted.
If you win at the Festival you are entitled to think you have a champion, but that cannot be the case in some of those races, which I believe have taken the shine off the meeting a bit.
For me, Cheltenham has to be about championships.
Your record at the Festival is not the greatest. Can you put your finger on why this has been the case?
Cheltenham has not been a lucky place for me. Batista, my second runner at the Festival, was beaten a short head in the 1978 Triumph Hurdle and I have had several touched off in photos. I had a horse killed in the SunAlliance Chase.
Having said all that, I have had winners there and Harbour Pilot twice finished third to Best Mate in the Gold Cup. On reflection, if I had run Harbour Pilot in the three-mile handicap chase that first year he would probably have won it.
But Cheltenham is about championships and Harbour Pilot was there to shoot for the stars.
It was a feeling of relief after Sausalito Bay gave me my first success [in the 2000 Supreme Novices’].
At that time I was getting a lot of stick in the press with the papers continually reminding me that I hadn’t had a Festival winner.
I kissed the ground because I had always had it in my head that if I made it into the winner’s enclosure I’d get on my knees and kiss the hallowed turf.
Paul Carberry has been your number one jockey since the 1990s and you’ve enjoyed plenty of success together, yet he’s often got himself into trouble with the authorities. Why have you continued to stand by him?
The reason I stand by him is because he is such a brilliant jockey, an outstanding rider, an exceptional talent in the saddle.
He was his own worst enemy for quite a while; there’s no question he has done a lot of things he shouldn’t have done and he would have been an even better jockey had he not done them. Paul’s alcohol consumption has been well documented.
He is just a very, very good rider; his ability to get a horse to settle, to jump, the way he reads a race and his judgement of pace make him a one-off.
He can get a horse into a race with a minimum of effort and win a race with as little force as possible. He actually loves those horses he is riding.
Paul has been extremely loyal to me as well; he has never had a retainer and there have been times when he could have walked away and ridden other horses in big races, but he didn’t.
You don’t come across people like him very often. He lives for hunting and he missed it so much when he was riding in England that he came back to Ireland.
I knew he would go hunting so I let him get on with it.
On occasions things went wrong and he couldn’t ride because of accidents. One year he missed Cheltenham because he jumped a gate on to a road and turned upside down.
I said to him, ‘Why did you have to do that?’ and he said, ‘Well, the gate was there.’ He couldn’t help himself.
What was your reaction after Harchibald’s controversial defeat by Hardy Eustace in the 2005 Champion Hurdle?
I didn’t blame Paul [Carberry]. I knew he was doing his best for me, for ‘Archie’ and for himself.
I was watching the race with Dessie [Hughes] when three or four lives passed through me in a matter of seconds on that run-in.
Going to the last ‘Archie’ was filling up and I thought ‘We’re going to win a Champion Hurdle’; halfway up the run-in I still thought ‘We’re going to win the Champion Hurdle’, but then it was as if someone had pulled the lever, the trapdoor opened and I fell through it absolutely gutted.
Dessie was all but patting me on the back and saying ‘well done’, and then it was me patting him on the back for real.
Paul and I didn’t discuss the race at the time, but at a later date he told me that he winged the second last, was tanking round the bend and found he got there sooner than he wanted.
And if he could ride the race again he’d have waited a little longer.
How good is Nina Carberry compared to most male jump jockeys and do you think she should turn professional?
Nina is a top amateur and can compete with any amateur. But I don’t think she should turn professional because I don’t think being a professional jump jockey is a great job for a girl.
In any case, I’m not sure that she has ever wanted to turn pro. Besides, she has a lovely niche for herself at the moment riding in the amateur races in Ireland and has less chance of getting hurt.
You’ve had to deal with the loss of some brilliant horses over the years, including Cardinal Hill and, more recently, Go Native. Does it get any easier to deal with as you get older?
To be honest, I think it gets worse. I was heartbroken when we lost Go Native. When you’re younger you automatically think there will be another good one round the corner.
As you get older you realise these horses don’t grow on trees; the very good ones are almost impossible to replace.
I always thought Cardinal Hill, who won five from seven, was probably the best horse I ever had; the work he did was fantastic.
He was at home at Martinstown, got colic and never recovered.
Willie Mullins appears to dominate Irish jump racing these days. Do you think you can wrestle back the championship from his grasp?
I am as competitive as ever but, unfortunately, if you can’t win in the sales ring it’s very hard to win on the track.
Willie is buying everything everywhere and, of course, he’s doing a phenomenal job.
He has all the horses so he wins all the races; if you win all the races, the more horses you get and the more horses you get, the more races you win.
He has all the big owners and he is continually topping the sales, buying point-to-point winners and filling his boxes with new ones.
No, I don’t think anyone is going to topple Willie for quite some time.
Finally, you have warned against increasing the number of mares’ races, saying that “fillies aren’t desirable, they’re too weak and they don’t have enough scope.” So how would you incentivise owners and breeders to put fillies into training?
This statement has haunted me for a while. I was at a bloodstock seminar when I said this and it has been rammed down my throat ever since.
Maybe I came over a bit too strong at the time, though in fairness I was one of the instigators that pushed very hard to get the two Grade 1 mares’ races that we now have in Ireland.
We also have quite a few other races for mares as well, so it is worthwhile having a few mares in the yard for these races.