You are the youngest of eight children from a County Tipperary family that had no involvement in racing. Was your childhood spent with ponies and what first got you interested in the sport?
Obviously Tipperary is renowned for racing and horses, and I was always interested from a very early age. Although not involved in racing, my parents got me a pony and I did a lot of showjumping and hunting. I always wanted to be involved with racehorses and my dream was to be a jockey. I rode 47 winners over jumps.
You’ve made your name as an excellent trainer of sprinters. Was this by design or is it just the way things have worked out?
Our clientele has always been made up of people who have a passion for racing and the sport is their hobby. They want to see their horses running so you cannot buy a big, backward individual that might not see a racecourse until it’s a three-year-old. Basically, the type you buy is dependent on what the owner wants.
As the years have gone by we have received horses from people who can spend the bigger money, and this increases the chances of finding a Guineas or Derby winner.
If someone sends me a horse that is bred to win a Gold Cup or St Leger then we would train it for those type of events. It’s a case of finding the right races for the horses you have. First and foremost, it’s doing what’s right for the horse.
To what degree is your family involved in the operation and what roles do they play?
My wife, Jill, manages the office and ensures the business runs smoothly. She is the lynchpin and allows me to worry about the horses. My daughter, Amy, has done fantastically with her race-riding and is in the yard riding out every day. She is one of the best judges of a horse I know. My son, Adam, is my assistant trainer.
How agonising is it when you see your daughter Amy, such an accomplished rider, suffering serious injury, as she did quite recently?
It is very difficult to witness and there are times when you do wish that she was doing something else for a living, but this is what she has always wanted to do.
Unfortunately, you have to accept that there are risks and she hasn’t had much luck recently. She loves what she does and is very good at it, but there is no pressure for her to do it.
Is there still resistance from some owners in putting up a female jockey?
Amy has done very well to get to where she is and she has achieved it on merit, not through her name. She understands it is a job and I will not use her just because she is my daughter, it is because she deserves to be riding the horses.
The owners do not hesitate to use her, but if they do not wish to or she loses a ride on one, then she accepts it as part and parcel of the job.
What do you consider the most important part of training and the most important attributes for a successful trainer?
The most important cog in any training operation is the owner. The owners are the people who keep racing going; quite simply, without them there would be no horses to race and we would all be out of a job. As far as the horses are concerned, I like mine to be happy; then they will do what you ask of them.
They give us so many great days and deserve nothing but the best treatment. We don’t overdo them at home and like to see them 100% on the day. You don’t win any prize-money on the gallops.
Do you train on the actual site of the historic Hambleton racecourse, bordering the North Yorkshire Moors, where the great Sir Noel Murless started before the war?
My gallop is situated on the old racecourse and it’s fantastic. The constant gradient makes the horses work and it is very easy to get them fit on it. The surface is woodchip, which is ideal because it provides an even gallop throughout the year and is not affected by the weather as much as some other artificial surfaces.
We do take horses away to work and use the Malton gallops, especially for the two-year-olds. Taking them there provides them with invaluable travelling experience and gets them used to the grass.
Ripon racecourse very kindly lets us work there after racing and, again, it’s good for the two-year-olds to be on grass and gallop past a grandstand.
Like Mark Johnston in Middleham, you have invested in a plane so that you don’t have to stay away when you have runners in the south. Is it a disadvantage being so far north?
We are perfectly situated, as the yard is easily accessible to so many tracks. The A1 is only 15 minutes away so it is very easy to travel around the country. The plane does make life easier, enabling me to see two or three lots before setting off to the races in the south.
With the likes of Doncaster, York, Haydock, Ayr, etc we have a lot of big events within striking distance.
You are on record as saying Hot Streak is among the best you’ve trained, which is some compliment from a multiple Group 1-winning trainer. What makes him so outstanding?
We still have the highest opinion of Hot Streak even though he finished only seventh in the July Cup. It was really tacky ground at Newmarket and six furlongs in such dead conditions is a very different ball game. Immediate plans are fluid but the Nunthorpe at York is likely to be his next race.
Hot Streak is such an easy horse to train and all he wants to do is please you. He has so much natural speed that he can travel well within himself at full gallop, as he showed when winning the Temple Stakes at Haydock. He can shift through the gears so easily that he quickens without really being asked.
He was beaten by a very good horse [Sole Power] at Royal Ascot, but he is so tough and genuine that he battled through to run an exceptional race. He is a Group 1 winner-in-waiting and will continue to improve. It’s hard to believe he is only a three-year-old.
Hot Streak is owned by Qatar Racing. How many horses do you train for this ambitious Middle East enterprise?
We are very fortunate to train nine horses for them. Sheikh Fahad has been a breath of fresh air in recent years and his support is a massive boost for the yard. He is a pleasure to train for and, win or lose, his first concern is always the horse.
He has invested a lot in the game and has supported a lot of trainers, so having a good one for him is particularly satisfying.
What is your biggest ambition and how many horses would you like to train in a perfect world?
It was always my ambition to win a Classic and it was fantastic to achieve that with The Grey Gatsby in the French Derby. Now I suppose the aim is to win a British Classic. Basically, as long as the stable keeps moving forward and producing success for the owners, I shall be happy.
We are full at the moment with 121 horses, which I feel is a good number and easily managed. The quality has improved year on year and we have a very strong team of horses.
As you say, The Grey Gatsby provided your first Classic triumph in the Prix du Jockey-Club. What did the victory mean to you and the stable?
It is the biggest success of my career and one should not forget all the people who made it possible. Not least Steve Hillen and his wife, Becky, who work tirelessly at the sales each year to source a quality stock of yearlings. And their system seems to be working; they continue to find us high class horses, despite not having the massive budgets of other agents.
The lads in the yard work very hard and a big result like the French Derby gives them all a tremendous boost. They are with the horses longer than anyone else and it’s great to see their hard work pay off because, rain or shine, they are always there to ensure the horses are looked after.
For me, it is a great achievement but nothing changes because you have to keep moving forward in search of the next winner. You can’t start celebrating until the end of the year; it’s only then you look back and reflect on the season as a whole.
The Grey Gatsby hated the testing ground next time in the Grand Prix de Paris [sixth behind Gallante]. His next target is the Juddmonte International at York.
Have you been inundated with offers for him since his Chantilly triumph?
Frank Gillespie, The Grey Gatsby’s owner, is in a position where he doesn’t have to sell and has been in the sport for many years, always dreaming of finding a horse like him.
At the end of the day there will always be interest in a colt of his quality but the final decision rests with the owner.
What is your favourite racecourse and what makes it so special?
We are lucky to have a great track like York on our doorstep, and you won’t find any better. You always get a warm, friendly and enthusiastic crowd there, and the track is beautiful, especially for two-year-olds.
William Derby, the Chief Executive and Clerk of the Course, deserves a lot of credit as he is continually striving to improve the course, whether it’s the facilities, prize-money or quality of racing. A winner at York is always special.
The tracks that don’t put the owners first are the ones that are under-performing. Some courses could learn from the Scottish hospitality, which ensures owners are looked after and enjoy their day.
When you attend the sales, are looks or pedigree more important when you are searching for a prospective money-spinner?
Steve and Becky Hillen go through everything at the sales and create a list for me. Then we work out which we would like to purchase. Of course the pedigree is important, but the conformation more so. We like to see a good stamp of animal with an athletic walk.
There are certain features we’ll forgive but we try not to buy horses with problems. That’s too much of a gamble and if things were to go wrong later on you would kick yourself knowing you had bought it like that.
As far as the breeze-ups are concerned, the way a horse gallops and the time it does are added factors to consider.
Currently there is no all-weather track in the north, but Newcastle is set to replace its turf course with Tapeta. How do you feel about both the venue and surface?
It will be good for the north to have an all-weather track – I think Newcastle will attract decent crowds. The Tapeta surface has recently been receiving bad press but when it was first laid the opposite was being said.
We are talking about two very different climates, the heat of Dubai, where Tapeta was used before being dug up, and Newcastle. So it’ll be a case of waiting to see whether or not it proves a success.
What do you think of Wetherby’s plans to stage Flat racing; surely there are enough fixtures as it is?
Wetherby has some great facilities and is perfectly situated just off the A1. So it makes sense. After all, it seems a bit of a waste to have such a great course being used minimally. And, from the trials, it sounds as though it will be a very good track for the horses.
You have enjoyed lots of success with Neil Callan, who is back from riding in Hong Kong and you are joining forces with him again…
Neil is one of the best jockeys out there and you wouldn’t want to see him sat in the weighing-room when you could be using his talent and experience. We have enjoyed a lot of success together and he is certainly getting my support. He is also a very good friend of mine.